Questions of faith and devotion are explored with sensitivity and grace in “Novitiate,” a quietly moving drama about nuns on the cusp of great change.
It’s 1964, just as Pope John XXIII is implementing the reforms of the Vatican II council. One of the last places for those reforms to reach is the Sisters of the Sacred Rose, a cloistered order in the American South. The Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) drags her feet at introducing the changes of Vatican II, which she believes will destroy her order’s devotion and faith.
Mother Superior is overseeing a novitiate class, the second step toward the final vows a nun takes. The film follows a group of nuns-in-training, signing on as postulates and into the 18-month ordeal of being a novice.
Writer-director Maggie Betts focuses her story mostly on Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a late convert to Catholicism, having been raised outside any religion by her single mom (Julianna Nicholson). Cathleen wants to be a nun for what seems to be the purest of reasons: She’s in love with God and wants to be a “bride of Christ.” But as she and the other novices discover, through the grueling penance the Mother Superior puts them through, that love may not be enough.
Betts takes time to lay down the daily rhythms of the convent, and she gets the details of Catholic life before and after Vatican II down perfectly. She’s also blessed with a strong ensemble cast, including Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, Rebecca Dayan and especially Qualley — in a starmaking role — as sisters on different points on their spiritual journey. (When “Novitiate” debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Qualley became a second-generation Sundance discovery; her mother, Andie MacDowell, had her breakthrough there in 1989 with “sex, lies and videotape.”)
Most of all, Betts takes faith seriously. Her characters may question their faith, but there’s never a moment in “Novitiate” where that faith is mocked or denigrated.
* * * 1/2
Young women in training to become nuns see the church change around them in this quietly powerful drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Megaplex The District (South Jordan).
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 24.
Rating • R for language, some sexuality and nudity.
Running time • 123 minutes.