Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 25, 2017 3:18 pm 
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Drama in a nunnery, 1964

In her feature debut Novitiate, which she wrote and directed, Margaret Betts steers a middle path between convent horror story (a well-worn genre) and the kind of idealized whitewash of sisterhood that's epitomized by Fred Zinneman's A Nun's Story, which starred Aubrey Hepburn. In fact one of the young nuns in training, or postulants, in this film has chosen to become a nun on no solider basis than admiration for that old movie. Aubrey Hepburn looks so pure and wonderful! But other events in the film remind us of the horror stories, though Betts follows an admirably convincing path, forcing us to realize, not for the first time, that the Catholic Church has really, historically been the scene of some very dubious practices.

Betts stays within the range of real events, but she tips the scale in several ways. The covent focused on, the fictitious Order of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, located in Tennessee, is known to house a particularly severe order, which is a guarantee of more excitement for the viewer than if it were merely quiet and gentle. The Mother Superior, Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo), who has not left the buildings in forty years, also rules with an iron hand, and is tightly wound and scary. Even more particular to the drama, the action is set in 1964. This is the time when the sweeping decisions of the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II, designed to reform the Church and bring it into the twentieth century, spread through the Catholic world, causing turmoil. The result is a drama with solid content both in personal and historical terms, even if there are some structural imbalances.

In her singleness of purpose, Betts tries to interweave two plot elements that are somewhat at war with each other: the trial of the young postulant, and the torment of the Mother Superior whose world is shattered. Novitiate's ostensible heroine, the lily-white and pure young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a well-motivated but troubled candidate for holy orders whose early history we get a rather sketchy view of, has a hard time competing with the rousing scenes featuring the tormented, and tormenting, Reverend Mother. It's a dream role for Melissa Leo, who could get her second Best Supporting Oscar out of it (after David O. Russell's 2010 The Fighter). The smart, intense Mother Superior as embodied by Leo is a tinderbox. She's at war with everyone. (Can such a person be loved by the non-masochist?) . But early on her chief enemy arrives in the two packages from the archdiocese filled with the Vatican II documents. They immediately set her into a concealed rage.(Some of Leo's performance is subtle; other parts are disappointingly overblown and hammy.) She hides this material from the other sisters as long as she can. She declares that the Church is perfect as it is. It does not need any reforms! This position can last only until she gets a visit from the liberal and condescending Archbishop (Denis O'Hare) who tells her bluntly that if she doesn't bring the order into conformity, she'll be replaced. When she does conform, in great pain, the whole convent seems to lose its sense of order and worth.

The "medieval" punishments (as Archbishop McCathy calls them), which have been such a key part of the Mother Superior's rigorous boot camp procedures for the girl postulants, and which include both physical and mental punishment, are out. The priest will no longer say the mass in Latin facing away from the congregation. Most shocking of all for the order, being a nun will no longer be considered to confer any more status than that of any woman in the Church, and special dress will no longer be required. Why bother? The after-titles of this film inform us that in 1964 90,000 Catholic nuns left their orders. The number of postulants in Cathleen's cycle dwindles down to only five, not only because of the severity of the Mother Superior's methods, but the sense of disorder conveyed when she has been forced, tearfully, to announce Vatican II's implications for nuns.

Faith and discipline, religious practice and status are life-and-death matters for all concerned and we get a sense of how serious everything is for these young "brides of Christ" - though I wished for more specific looks at Catholic belief, some glimpse of Cathleen's intellectual development, and better differentiation between all the young sisters. And at moments I wished for a leavening of ribaldry that Giovanni Boccaccio brought in his Decameron (adapted so well by Pasolini) or that comes, a little too generously for my taste, in the farcical recent movie The Little Hours, whose absurd and profane action is set in Tuscany in the middle ages. The time when this most comes up is when the ostensible protagonist, Cathleen, who goes into a dangerous anorexic phase when she feels she's giving more love to God than she's getting back, turns to another postulant, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan), for what she calls "comfort." (Her solemnity causes Betts to pull some punches on the sensual, sexual misbehavior here.) The movie, which has some skillful, intense enactments of novitiate ritual that show Betts' skill as a director of ensemble action, ends with a teaser, as at a key moment in the final ceremony Cathleen seems to be hesitating. We'll never know if she had the motivation and the conviction that she needed. For all its imbalances, Notiviate makes us take a central dilemma of Christian faith - how to hold onto it - pretty seriously.

Novitiate, 123 mins., debuted at Sundance; half a dozen other festivals including Toronto. Limited US theatrical release 27 Oct. 2017. Metacritic rating 73%. Watched at Elmwood Rialto Theater, Berkeley, Ca, 24 Nov. 2017.

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