Novitiate is sort of like a piece of candy. It tastes good but you know it's really not good for you. This is first- time feature writer-director Margaret Betts take on Catholic monastic life just as it's about to go through a tremendous upheaval due to the reforms enacted by Vatican II under the tutelage of Pope John XXIII.
Like all good melodramatists, Betts' vision of the Catholic church is pure good and evil. She has an inordinate amount of sympathy for her protagonists, the young nun postulants and their mentors and an over the top disdain for an evil mother superior from hell.
Betts' opening scene is the weakest in the film. She introduces us to her goody-two-shoes protagonist 17 year old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), in the home of two bickering parents, the outspoken mother played by a rather good Julianne Nicholson. The dialogue between the parents is laced with profanity and the domestic discord is wholly generic in nature--suggesting that Betts didn't bother to take any time to flesh out her characters at this juncture.
Fortunately our break into the Second Act comes rather quickly and we're thrust into the action centered in a Catholic monastery in the Midwest circa 1964. The withdrawn Cathleen disappoints her non-religious mother Nora by her decision to enter the convent. There she meets another saintly character, Sister Mary Grace (played by the most attractive Dianna Agron of Glee fame) who shares her pristine devotion to God and love of ritual which most people in the outside world would look down upon.
The setup is to present the fledgling novitiates as pure, chaste, do-gooders who become victims at the hands of the vicious Reverend Mother, deliciously played by Melissa Leo who virtually saves the film from complete mediocrity. Yes it's disappointing that Betts doesn't have a shred of sympathy for the Mother Superior and her enforcers and presents them as one-dimensional, stereotyped martinets. But by the same token, Leo is so over the top in her portrayal of calculated viciousness that we end up feeling great enjoyment at "hissing the villain." Thus Betts has successfully incorporated the primary directive of the melodramatic screenwriter's lexicon: make sure your villain is effective-the more evil, the better!
Contrary to the pronouncement of numerous critics, the machinations of Sister Cathleen and her buddy postulants, fail to make for compelling drama as their pious devotion is all rather perfunctory. There's the expected lesbian dalliance with Sister Cathleen in need of some tender loving care at the hands of a recently transferred novitiate, as well as the completely unbelievable scenario of one of the nuns entering a chapel and stripping completely naked (in Betts' view, the repression is so intense that this would lead one of the nuns to do such a thing!).
No it's strictly when we focus on the Reverend Mother that Novitiate has any gravitas at all. Pure goodness in the form of Sister Mary Grace resigns because she simply can't take the Reverend Mother's unflinching, cruel treatment of her innocent charges. And watch Leo pounce when she humiliates her nuns-in- training at the Chapter of Faults, a group meeting where novices kneel on the floor, confessing self-failings.
Sister Hosea Rupprecht of the Catholic News Service bemoans how Betts' depiction is manipulative and presents an unfair understanding of the ritual: "This aspect of monastic life was meant to encourage rigorous morality, and keep the community healthy by cleansing it of festering secrets. Yet, as portrayed here, it will certainly strike even some Catholics as extreme. All the more so, since Reverend Mother manipulates the process to her own ends."
Perhaps the most enjoyable scenes are where the Reverend Mother gets her comeuppance, first at the hands of a priest who's been sent to chastise her for failing to enact the Vatican II reforms and then by Cathleen's Mom, who notes that her daughter has lost a great deal of weight and threatens to pull her out of the convent if nothing is done.
Novitiate does well in providing us a nice history lesson in regards to the effect the Vatican II reforms had on the church. Nonetheless, Betts chooses to present an extreme view of monastic life and fails to capture both the good and the bad in her characters. For a more nuanced depiction of Catholic devotees, see Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird"-where sympathy for the characters is much more paramount as well as balanced.