Priests have been the focus of most of the criticisms of the Catholic Church. In Novitiate, a young girl, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, a daughter of Andie MacDowell, who also starred in HBO’s “The Leftovers”), joins a very strict convent during the reforms of Vatican II, with which her reverend mother (Melissa Leo) is struggling. Getting rid of medieval punishments like hairshirts and the discipline (self-flagellation with a whip) is a positive of Vatican II; removing all special standing for nuns without allowing for the dissenting voice of any sisters seems harsher than necessary, especially given how the news is delivered by Denis O’Hare’s haughty archbishop. Still, the strictures and discipline of this particular abbess are beyond harsh. Sorority hazing has little on these sisters; the mental abuse of Chapter of Faults alone would be cause to suspend most Greek organizations.
Yet the strength of Novitiate is not in its depiction of abuse. The striking feature writing-directing debut of Margaret Betts is not meant to be a gotcha picture positioned as a takedown of the Catholic Church or the nunhood. Instead, it is a quiet, meaningful depiction of one young girl’s road to faith, along with its incipient complications. Qualley quietly stirs the soul as Sister Cathleen, who resorts to starvation and the aforementioned self-flagellation to overcome her sinful desires. Admittedly, Betts eventually falls back on an easy struggle for her nun narrative. But the path to get there is fraught with such depth of sympathy for the sisters, including Dianna Agron, formerly of “Glee,” that any complaints of inevitability seem petty.
The film also has a compelling secondary plot in the relationship between Cathleen and her single, atheist mother (Julianne Nicholson), who cannot understand her daughter’s choice of vocation. She also cannot figure out how to rescue her from the abusive care of Leo’s reverend mother. The film generates so much suspense from what she will do to the young girls in her charge that it is almost a thriller. Leo is such a strong, terrifying presence. (The Oscar winner is also the film’s best chance at any awards.) She certainly receives the most understandable accolades, yet Betts writes and directs so confidently it is impossible to believe she is a first-time filmmaker. She is as much a talent to watch as her debut film.
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