The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"NOVITIATE"

Novitiate

Novitiate is a movie that will fascinate Catholics, and fascinate non-Catholics even more. The story provides a glimpse into the lives of nuns not just in general, but during a period of the 1960s that marked a real turning point in Catholicism. Writer/director Maggie Betts' film has a couple of briefly over-the-top moments, but otherwise delivers a sharp, observant, and respectful look at young women who are willing to consider reshaping their entire lives to serve God.

Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) plays Cathleen, a teenager who falls in love with the Church at an early age and decides to join the sisterhood, much to the dismay of her not especially religious mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). Once cloistered, she learns the rules from the strict Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) and befriends her fellow sisters.

Despite her devotion, Cathleen has some difficulty with life in a convent. She's naturally curious about sexuality. Being ordered to engage in self-flagellation and other humiliating acts to atone for sin seems a bit harsh to her. So does forced silence during periods of the day.

There's an old saying that really fits: Many are called, few are chosen. In other words, wanting to become a priest or nun doesn't mean you're cut out for it. The level of commitment required is too much for many people to handle. Novitiate examines that idea in close detail, depicting the way Cathleen tries to balance out her love for God with the struggle of following unbreakable rules that seem to be dictated more by the Church than the Bible.

What's astonishing about Qualley's performance is that she makes both sides of the coin crystal clear. Cathleen really does believe she has been called to service, and her devotion to the Lord is sincere. At the same time, the actress meaningfully conveys the character's drive to be a normal young woman. Cathleen wants to be a nun, yet wonders what it would be like to fall in love, be intimate with someone, and so on. You feel every ounce of her conflicting feelings in Qualley's hands.

The other engrossing aspect of Novitiate is its look at Vatican II, a new set of rules sent down by Pope John XXIII. It had the effect of changing the face of Catholicism by attempting to soften the Church's image a little bit. A mass exodus of nuns followed its implementation. Reverend Mother, passionately portrayed by Leo, doesn't want to accept the decree, even going so far as to defy it, until the point where she no longer can. The movie captures how devastating it was for so many of the sisters, who found their status downgraded. In that sense, Novitiate is a story of betrayal. What happens when you dedicate your life to the Church, giving up so much in the process, only to have its very nature change right in front of you?

If Qualley gives the film its soul and Leo gives it some edge, Julianne Nicholson provides heart. She does tremendous work as Nora, a woman in a real bind. On one hand, she wants to support her daughter's dream. On the other, the severe rules Cathleen must live by are heartbreaking for her to witness. Like any good mother, she wonders if her child is ready to accept the long-term repercussions of such a serious choice at a young age. Nicholson gets one of the best scenes, in which Nora lets Reverend Mother know who the real mama is.

A few scenes involving sexual matters may cause some very conservative Catholics to scream exploitation. I'd argue that those bits are justified. The vow of chastity is key in becoming a priest or nun, and yet sexual interest is inherent in our humanity. The Church expects it to be sublimated. Can it really, though? Cathleen grapples with the question, trying to be pure in thought and action, even as her biology does what comes naturally. This is just one of many ways in which Novitiate enlightens on the amazing amount of sacrifice nuns must make to show their commitment to Christ while still attempting to be true to who they are as women.

( 1/2 out of four)


Novitiate is rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.


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