⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: R for language, some sexuality and nudity. In English and Latin.
If you could imagine "Full Metal Jacket's" boot camp bullying reworked into a stern convent training Catholic girls to enter the cloister in 1964 Tennessee, you might come close to this debut from writer/director Margaret Betts. "Novitiate" is challenging, uncomfortable, violent, simple in its message about transformative mind control imposed on youth, superbly acted and technically flawless. The key difference is that Stanley Kubrick's film was a war story while this is a romance focused on young women drawn to be "brides of Christ," a story of agony and ecstasy.
The leading role of Sister Cathleen goes to Margaret Qualley, the 22-year-old daughter of Andie McDowell. "People never understand why I want to give it all away to God," Cathleen says at the opening. Her agnostic single mother (terrifically played by Julianne Nicholson) is deeply bewildered, never grasping how the violent collapse of her marriage a decade earlier turned her daughter away from human longings.
Joining the fictional religious community of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, Cathleen enters a world apart. A conservative order, it holds members to long periods of enforced silence, public confession of personal shortcomings, and even encourages the medieval practice of personal lashing. The hard-hearted Reverend Mother (Malissa Leo in thrilling form) ignores the fact that most of these doctrines are being rejected by the progressive revisions of the Second Vatican Council. She fears that the new directions will lower the status of nuns in the church and effectively annul her spiritual marriage to God.
Her powerful control of her sisters becomes cruel to the point of sadism. Watching a process through which souls were broken in order to be saved, the film is a righteous howl of moral frustration. While the novices talk about their love for films of religion-themed uplift, including Audrey Hepburn in "The Nun's Story," this is light-years apart from that.
The Divine Order
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: Unrated by MPAA. In Swiss-German, subtitled.
It might surprise some people to discover that Switzerland's equivalent of our 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote didn't pass until 1971. "The Divine Order" examines that fight for women's suffrage in a microcosm.
Written and directed by Petra Volpe, the film is set in a conservative Swiss town that has gone largely insulated from the spirit of the swinging '60s. Like most of the town's women, Nora (Marie Leuenberger) has been cowed into keeping her opinions to herself. "The more we push, the more the men do what they want," she tells a pamphleteer encouraging approval of the referendum.
But soon Nora is moved to act. She reads up on the inequities of the country's marriage law. A small act of defiance against the town's leading female anti-suffrage finger-wagger (Therese Affolter) wins her an ally in a feisty widow (Sibylle Brunner), and soon an Italian restaurant owner (Marta Zoffoli) joins them. Their growing movement culminates in a strike that brings the town to a halt.
Taking a middle-brow, mildly rollicking approach to a serious subject, the movie doesn't break new ground. It goes for easy laughs and hinges on a pair of big-speech scenes. Still, it effectively illustrates how peer pressure can influence the political process. Collective silence, whether it's from women unwilling to publicly press for their rights or men afraid to voice agreement with their wives for fear of looking weak around co-workers, proves more of an obstacle than any opponent. That message gives Volpe's film a timely edge.
BEN KENIGSBERG, New York Times