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'Novitiate' Captures A Watershed Moment In The Life Of The Catholic Church


This is FRESH AIR. This past January, Margaret Betts won the breakthrough director award at the Sundance Film Festival for her feature debut "Novitiate." It's a coming-of-age story set in the 1960s during the era of reforms in the Catholic Church known as Vatican II. A 17-year-old enters the convent and struggles with herself and the mother superior, who's played by Melissa Leo. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The writer-director Margaret Betts has set herself a mighty task for her first feature, "Novitiate," to put us in the heads of young women who long to be brides of Christ. It's the early 1960s when the 17-year-old Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley, says in voiceover, people never understand why I want to give it all away to God. She tells her mother she's in love and embarks on the year-long training as first a postulant then a novitiate to see if she'll be able to consummate her religious crush.

As Betts portrays it, that training is a spiritual boot camp requiring one to forswear human intimacy, observe so-called grand silences in which no one may speak and self-flagellate with a cat-tail whip if one steps out of line. The reverend mother superior, played by Melissa Leo, tells her charges that in their isolation, she will be the lone voice of God. She evinces fierce belief and more than a touch of sadism.


MELISSA LEO: (As Reverend Mother) Finally, I'd like to talk about silence. We observe two kinds of silence here - regular silence and grand silence. During regular silence, if you feel you have a need to speak, it's permissible. But when you hear that bell at 9 o'clock at night signifying the beginning of grand silence, that means you don't talk. Any questions? Put your hand down, Sister. Postulants don't have questions. And you are free to go home.

EDELSTEIN: You could laugh. But the mother superior doesn't wink. She's deadly serious. So is the setting. Bett's palette is full of deep, oppressive but very beautiful blacks that make the characters stand out, as in medieval paintings, and make their flesh that much more vivid. The focus of "Novitiate" is twofold on both Cathleen and the mother superior. The question hangs - will Cathleen remain steadfast as other girls are ejected from the order and her mother, Nora, played by Julianne Nicholson, tells her she's insane?

It was the violent dissolution of her parents' marriage that kindled the 7-year-old Cathleen's attraction to the Catholic Church. But will that connection hold as she begins to feel more human longings? The second plot line centers on how the mother superior will cope with a seismic shift in church policy in the form of Vatican II, a loosening of laws to which the mother superior is passionately dedicated. She pointedly ignores the new edicts until an archbishop played by Denis O'Hare pays a call.


DENIS O'HARE: (As Archbishop McCarthy) Tell me - what exactly are you having the most difficulty with? Just lay it all out for me.

LEO: (As Reverend Mother) I have no difficulty. I just happen to disagree with it - all of it. Not to mention it's a slap in the face that the sisters weren't given any voice in the matter.

O'HARE: (As Archbishop McCarthy) You honestly expected them to have their own voice, the sisters.

LEO: (As Reverend Mother) We are a part of this church, too.

O'HARE: (As Archbishop McCarthy) Marie, Marie, that's not how it works.

LEO: (As Reverend Mother) I don't think you really understand this will do to us. If we were to truly embrace all these changes, it will ruin the very institution of Catholic nuns as...

O'HARE: (As Archbishop McCarthy) Are you still encouraging all of your novitiates and postulants to perform extreme acts of penance on themselves, all that old medieval stuff? Because that's got to stop.

LEO: (As Reverend Mother) I never asked my girls to do anything for God that I haven't done myself.

O'HARE: (As Archbishop McCarthy) Like I said, got to stop.

EDELSTEIN: I almost never recognize Melissa Leo. Her features aren't distinctive and transform according to her characters. This is a stunning performance, hateful in many scenes, as when she makes a young woman crawl on her knees for accidentally greeting her during grand silence. In other scenes, Leo's mother superior is so charged with emotion that she seems the purest, most divinely attuned person on screen.

There are so many cross currents in "Novitiate" that, by the end, I wasn't quite sure if the film was pro- or anti-Vatican II - pro-, I guess, but with the proviso that something vital has been lost. In any case, Cathleen's soul seems to be wandering to settle for a life behind the gates, particularly when she feels a strong connection with a quiet but intense novitiate played by Rebecca Dayan. "Novitiate" has some unintentional laughs. Lines are too on the nose, edging into what camp aficionados call nunsploitation.

The supporting performances are variable. The score features too many classical religious chestnuts. But Betts has captured a watershed moment in the life of the Catholic Church, a push to adapt that is, in important ways, at odds with its very origins. This young director is off to a terrific start.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, John Hodgman, contributor to "The Daily Show" and This American Life and author of books of fake facts and made-up history. He gets personal in his new collection of funny essays. In high school, he wore long hair, a fedora and carried a briefcase.

JOHN HODGMAN: That's the look I was going for in high school - emotionally terrified weirdo was tricking people into thinking he was interesting by wearing funny clothes.

BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "OH BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.