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Middleburg: Maggie Betts' "Novitiate"

Continuing our Middleburg Film Festival adventures. Here's Lynn Lee

Middleburg is the kind of idyllic Virginia town that makes me wish I had enough independent means to spend regular fall weekends there lodging at a cushy spa, riding horses, visiting local wineries, and binging once a year on Oscar-baity films before they get released in theaters.  As it is, I was happy to get a taste of the latter on a press pass to this year’s festival.  On Day 3, I joined Nathaniel in town (albeit at different events) and took in Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, and Dee Rees’ Mudbound.

Of the three, the one I knew the least about beforehand turned out to be the one I liked best.  Set at a convent in the 1960s around the time of Vatican II, Novitiate centers on the struggles and yearnings of young postulant Cathleen (Margaret Qualley of “The Leftovers” and The Nice Guys) and the fellow nun-aspirants and nuns around her.  That may sound like niche fare at best, but I hope Sony Pictures figures out how to market it because it’s an astoundingly assured, riveting debut feature...

It's well worth seeing, regardless of your faith or lack thereof.  That said, it will probably appeal most deeply to those who (like yours truly) have a complicated relationship with Catholicism—a tricky subject that can be difficult for artists to treat seriously without proselytizing either for or against.  Novitiate, to its credit, does neither.  It’s an admirably nuanced portrayal of both what would draw a young girl to such a rigid and closed-off life and why her commitment to it would give one pause.

Betts comes from a documentary background, and it shows in the precise, detailed clarity with which she depicts the rules and customs of pre-Vatican II orders.  Yet Novitiate isn’t in the least cold or clinical, nor does it ever feel exploitative.  Rather, it captures with remarkable sensitivity the very human longings and passions of young girls who, in their own way, are looking for love; their moments of levity, as well as moments of quiet beauty, reflection, and pain.  In a Q&A after my screening, Betts explained that she first got interested in nuns when she was in an airport looking for something to read, picked up a book of the late Mother Teresa’s private writings, and was struck by the deeply emotional, even romantic nature of her relationship with God.  Consistent with that inspiration, the movie is respectful towards Cathleen’s earnest devotion and maintains genuine suspense up to the end regarding whether she’ll hold fast to it and become a nun. 

Qualley is excellent, as is the rest of the virtually (and refreshingly) all-female cast: in particular, Dianna Agron (“Glee”) is a revelation as a bright, kind young nun who’s increasingly tormented by spiritual doubts; Julianne Nicholson, despite being saddled with the film’s hammiest dialogue, cuts a poignant figure as Cathleen’s strictly secular mother who’s bewildered by her daughter’s self-sacrifice to the church; and no one’s better than Melissa Leo at turning an abusive character into almost a monster, only to humanize without exonerating her.  Ironically, Leo’s viciously authoritarian and reactionary Reverend Mother is never more sympathetic than when she’s forced to adopt the reforms of Vatican II.  One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its handling of what’s most often presented as a much-needed liberalization of the Catholic church: so it is here, yet Betts also underscores how much it was also a patriarchal imposition and demotion of the importance of nuns, who left the convents en masse in the wake of Vatican II.  It would be easy to get an audience to root for the nuns to be freed of their chains; Novitiate leaves us to ponder the cost of such freedom to many a nun’s identity and self-value. 

Grade: B+

Novitiate begins its platform release this Friday, October 27th


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Reader Comments (2)

Hmmm, female director, a talented, possibly Oscar-nominated (people keep mentioning Leo for Supporting actress), all-female cast, and it's actually good? Yes, please.

October 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Anyone feel Leo has been too out there as a frontrunner to make it once the film is more widely seen.

October 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

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