Full Nun Jacket
Aside from Dead Man Walking, we rarely see depictions of Catholic nuns in film. Rarer still are depictions of the struggle and pressures in taking up the cloth. Helpfully, Novitiate is here to talk about precisely that as a feature length fiction film from the mind of a documentary director. And I must admit, I wouldn’t have thought of depicting training to become a nun in the same intensity as the boot camp half of Full Metal Jacket, but it works surprisingly well.
We follow Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) as she enters a Catholic convent in 1954 America despite the protests of her agnostic mother (Julianne Nicholson). There, Cathleen is under the tutelage of Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother, a domineering nun who strikes fear into the hearts of all the young women who first enter the convent as she makes it her mission to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” As Cathleen goes through the process of becoming a nun herself at the stage of “novitiate,” she befriends and gets to know many fellow sisters like Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), Margaret (Ashley Bell), and Emily (Liana Liberato). Meanwhile, the Reverend Mother demonstrates difficulty in coming to terms with sweeping changes coming to the Catholic Church through the modernization efforts of Vatican Council II.
I’ll get to the historical angle in a bit as it’s what drew me to the film in the first place, but I first need to give a shutout to both Qualley and Leo giving me two wonderfully solid performances. Funny thing is, they rarely share the screen together except for some major moments in the latter half of the movie; so the majority of the time they’re off interacting with the rest of the cast or having intriguing solitary moments as they struggle with their respective faiths in their vocation. Both women also experience complete arcs as one struggles with becoming a nun, while the other struggles with pressure from her superiors in the Archdiocese as to adopting modernization into her convent’s cloistered life. Both make fascinating stories to tell, even if the pacing is a bit wonky in certain areas, but made up from the aforementioned sterling performances.
Melissa Leo will likely be an easy favorite for Best Supporting Actress in the midst of awards season (though I doubt she’ll win as she already earned an Oscar in the same category for The Fighter). Leo gives one of the most intimidating performances of a teacher since R. Lee Ermey’s legendary portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. It’s the level of menace she displays for small infractions that make you nervous when she speaks calmly, because you know she’s about to unleash unholy hell upon these women. At the same time, Leo also demonstrates a large degree of pathos into the character that stops the Reverend Mother from appearing like a caricature. This mostly comes into play when she attempts to hide from her convent the degree of reform that wad affecting the Church at the time.
Qualley, meanwhile, steps up to the plate admirably for the lead role as she blew me away with her acting and made me forget how awful she was in Death Note (so I’ll now retroactively mock the director and writer for mucking up her role in that calamity). She doesn’t play her role as a young women joining the convent out of naivety, but as someone who seeks a connection without actually having to interact with people. It’s a curious position to take, and she does wonders with a complicated to depict role. While she has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, she really does shine in solo scenes as you see her grapple with her faith, sexuality, and her desires of what she wants in her life. On top of that, her scenes with Julianne Nicholson as her character’s mother are a rough watch of awkwardness and pain. Speaking of which, Nicholson is also awesome for such a bit role as her character truly doesn’t give a damn about Church policies and resents the implication that she “left” her daughter at the convent unlike the many other women there who were pressured by their respective families into serving the Church.
So this is where the sweeping changes of Vatican Council II come into play, and I must confess that I felt a little let down in this area. For those who don’t know, this was a three year conference of bishops in Rome where the Church made several decisions that greatly affected leadership and membership within the ranks. Most notably, priests had to conduct services in whatever native language they were operating with, face the congregation as opposed to their backs turned, and also encourage dialogue with other religions. But, it also frowned upon on physical discipline as a way to “repent” for sins and it also regarded nuns at a level below the priest-hood. Such sweeping changes affecting a community would have been interesting to watch as a film, but the film unfortunately only plays it lip service too little. To the point, Qualley’s character barely talks about Vatican Council II at all, as it all falls on Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother to deal with almost all of the strife. Would have been more interesting to get a novitiate’s perspective on the whole scene, but the film only relegates the effects to a title card at the end declaring how 90,000 nuns in the Untied States left their respective orders in the wake of Vatican Council II.
I think Spotlight handled systemic changes better as an overall film, but Novitiate still remains on the level with something like Silence that explains the hardships affecting people who take up the Cloth as a vocation. As I said, this is where the documentary strengths of the director, Margaret Betts, really come into play into making the everyday life of people seem interesting. But while the pacing does leave a little bit to be desired, there is some damn fine acting to check out here. For seeing women give other actresses a run for their money, I’ll give this a low…