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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Novitiate is an intense drama about young nuns in the 1960s. It's not easy to watch: Many of the young women are subjected to disturbing emotional and verbal torture by an authority figure; they're also forced to do physical punishments, and one woman whips herself as a form of penance. There's some smoking and non-sexual nudity. Characters also wrestle with their repressed sexuality, leading to non-graphic scenes of masturbation and an emotional (but non-graphic) scene of lovemaking between two women. There's also some rough language, including "f--k." The movie seriously confronts religious doubts and questions of faith, and it paints a pretty unflattering portrait of the Catholic Church (or at least this particular convent) in the time leading up to the Vatican II reforms.
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What's the story?
In NOVITIATE, teenage Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) shocks her independent single mother (Julianne Nicholson) in 1960s Tennessee by opting to enter a convent after experiencing an emotional calling. She's deliriously happy to become a "Bride of Christ" because she's madly in love with Him. But once at the convent, Sister Cathleen and the other novices (including Liana Liberato) are pulled between the poles of compassionate, young Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron) and the powerful, extremely exacting Reverend Mother (Oscar winner Melissa Leo). As Reverend Mother tries to hold the line against the sweeping reforms of Vatican II, Sister Cathleen must find the answers to her deepest questions in herself.
Is it any good?
It's a testament to writer/director Margaret Betts' intelligent, detailed writing and sensitive direction (as well as to strong performances) that this film is so compelling and beautifully crafted. Novitiate, Betts' narrative feature writing/directing debut, shares a few qualities with Damien Chazelle's superb Whiplash. Both are intense dramas about aspiring young people (a jazz drummer, a nun) who cloister themselves and endure torture to become the very best they can be, under a powerful and cruel authority figure. That said, Novitiate will be a major turnoff to some: Not everyone will appreciate its no-holds-barred take on strict Catholic practices of the time. Others may shy away from the subject matter in general, especially knowing the emotional brutality of some of the novices' trials. The film doesn't shy away from serious questions about religion and the existence of the divine. But the insightful Novitiate is, as Betts puts it, ultimately about "the way women love."
It also boasts some outstanding performances. Qualley is passionate, Agron soulful, Nicholson real and raw. And Leo's portrayal of the Reverend Mother is as clear and brittle as glass. The Reverend Mother sees herself as the bulwark against the cheapening, the destruction of the Church that "progress" -- in the form of Vatican II -- will surely bring. Inside Leo's practiced soothing tones is coiled a savage cruelty, just waiting to strike. Scenes of her humiliating and crushing the spirits of her charges in the name of making them "perfect" again recall Whiplash's teacher-student dynamic. It's largely from the nuclear core of Leo's performance that Novitiate draws its undeniable intensity. As the girls/young women face their deepest fears about themselves and their beliefs, Reverend Mother uses her strength to keep the lid on the boiling pot. The moments when it finally blows are memorable indeed.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Novitiate depicts religion. Characters have different points of view about it, and about whether God exists, whether the church's rituals are appropriate and helpful, and so forth, but does the film itself seem to present an opinion? Which character or characters come closest to your own feelings and beliefs? Which are farthest?
Reverend Mother's actions seem extreme. Why do you think she does what she does? Are her actions in line with her faith, or contradictory? Are her intentions "pure"? How accurately do you think the movie shows what might have actually happened in convents during this time period?
The film was written and directed by a woman and virtually has an all-woman cast, and most of the crew were reportedly women. Do you think it presents a point of view about women/gender roles we don't usually see on-screen? Why or why not? How do you think the film might have been different if it had been written and directed by a man?
- In theaters: October 27, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: March 6, 2018
- Cast: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberato
- Director: Margaret Betts
- Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Character Strengths: Integrity
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, some sexuality and nudity
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