Unfocused Novitiate leaves us nun the wiser

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      Starring Margaret Qualley. Rated PG

      Religious impulses are hard to capture in movies, which require concrete narratives to carry them forward. So kudos to Novitiate for attempting to impart some of the interior motives driving the spiritually minded to be, well, not so driven by society.

      Despite having been raised with no particular religion in the 1950s and early ’60s, one rural youngster is drawn ever closer to the church. Young Cathleen is played initially by Sasha Mason and then by Margaret Qualley—Andie McDowell’s model-turned-actor daughter, who has expressive eyes but not a lot to say. The girl has few prospects and has frequent conflicts with her free-spirit single mother (a so-so Julianne Nicholson). Her scholarship to the local Catholic school leads her to a nearby convent, where she eventually signs on to be a novitiate, or nun-in-training. (The real-world nunnery, unidentified here, is in the Nashville area and is a gothic monstrosity of intimidating proportions.)

      Cathleen gets some guidance from a benevolent nun (Glee’s Dianna Agron, quite memorable here). But even before taking her vows, she starts butting up against the order’s tough Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who has a serious sadistic streak, especially when it comes to her mandatory self-criticism sessions; she encourages the newcomers to confess salacious sins, and keeps a braided whip handy, for “extreme penance”.

      With a blue-tinged palette favoured by cinematographer Kat Westergaard, this is all reasonably engaging. First-time feature director Margaret Betts has a strong feel for her protagonist’s moral dilemmas. But the largely pedestrian dialogue is packed with TV modernisms, like “What’s with these habits?” and “Isn’t that a good thing?” And there’s little sense of the Cold War environment these novitiates are escaping. The Kennedy assassination was particularly traumatic to Catholics but doesn’t penetrate the convent’s stone walls.

      When the subject of Vatican II—the encyclical that replaced Latin rites with more casual English, among other reforms—finally comes up, the Reverend Mother tries to suppress it. But aside from grasping the fact that no women were consulted, we don’t necessarily get what the big deal is.

      This relates to the film’s attitude towards that character. It’s a meaty role for Leo, who imbues the number-one nun with a modicum of sympathy, but it’s not clear why we’re supposed to care. In the end, you simply have to wonder if Cathleen’s ultimate decision to stay or go isn’t really religious, but simply a question of management styles.