Issues of faith dominate in this week’s new release Novitiate. The title is derived from the term for the time someone is training in a religious order under the Catholic Church before he or she takes their vows. It’s the training period, meant to determine whether someone is truly called by God before making a lifetime commitment.
The story follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who feels just that sort of call. She enters a convent overseen by a Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) who comes from the old school of doing things. Unfortunately, the story takes place during the time of Vatican II, when many of those old ways were being rethought and overturned. Cathleen and the Reverend Mother, then, represent the end of one era and the beginning of another.
It’s the relationship between Reverend Mother and Cathleen that forms the core of the message conveyed on the theatrical posters. The two are situated one in front of the other as they stand in front of an elaborate stained glass window that, in combination with their habits, clearly establishes the setting of the story. Cathleen is looking in one direction while the older nun is looking in the other, communicating how they find themselves going in opposite directions.
Notable here is the naming of writer/director Maggie Betts. This is Betts’ debut feature, so giving her such prominent placement on the one-sheet is a nice move by Sony Pictures Classics.
The first trailer starts just as Kathleen is explaining she’s decided she’s been called to become a nun. She enters the convent and begins her training in her new life, which is lead by a Mother who is strict and unforgiving and beholden to the old ways. That includes punishments she’s urged to stop handing out. Kathleen struggles through the process just as the Mother struggles with a world that’s changing around her, specifically the changes dictated in Vatican II.
It’s a decently emotional trailer that sells the story as a crisis of identity. While religion, of course, is central to what’s happening it’s not used as a cheap excuse for anything. It’s simply the hook on which the exploration of a changing world and worldview is hung. Leo looks incredible as a woman who doesn’t know who she is without the structure and strictures provided by the system she’s always leaned on.
Online and Social
As you load the movie’s official website the trailer plays, which when closed gives way to the key art as a background to the splash page. At the bottom are links to Sony’s social media profiles, though there is a Facebook page specifically for the movie you’ll find eventually. It seems the studio has been emphasizing other releases recently, especially the upcoming Call Me By Your Name, so this movie hasn’t gotten much love on those brand channels.
As you scroll down the page, the first section you come across is the “Synopsis,” which gives you a brief overview of the movie’s story. You can meet the people who made it in the “Cast” and “Filmmakers” sections. Finally other’s a “Gallery” of stills followed by another link to the “Trailer” and “#Novitiate” link to encourage you to share the site on social media.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nothing I’ve seen here.
Media and Publicity
While the movie premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on those in attendance.
Early on in the promotion cycle there was a profile of Rebecca Dayan, who plays one of the other young women coming to the convent at the same time as Cathleen. There were also a few interviews like this one with Leo where she talked about the movie, how she makes choices about the roles she takes on and more. Qualley and others from the cast also talked here about the story and their own relationship with religion.
I like a lot of things about the campaign, particularly the focus on Leo as the emotional core of the story, even as Qualley’s Cathleen is the “new blood” who represents change. It’s Leo’s Reverend Mother who’s positioned as the one who has the more dramatic arc over the course of the story as she grapples with a world that’s changing too suddenly and in too many ways around her. This could easily have been sold as a youngs-vs-olds story, but that’s thankfully not the angle taken.
That being said, this isn’t an easy story to sell. A period piece set largely in a convent isn’t going to ring too many bells. I also would have liked to have seen Betts, as a black woman, get more of the publicity spotlight since it’s so important to highlight voices like hers. My hope is that more interviews and profiles of her show up in the near future as the movie expands beyond New York and Los Angeles.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.