‘Novitiate,” about the life of a young Catholic nun in early 1960s Tennessee, is made with a sensuality of style that’s shocking until you realize the movie’s actually a love story. And as with most love stories, the passion felt for God by Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), the 17-year-old novitiate (or nun in training) of the title, leads to a far rockier relationship than she expects.
The movie, written and directed by Margaret Betts, is by turns strikingly original and dramatically slick, deeply felt and a little cooked up. It’s well worth seeing, though, not least for the ways it conveys the profound intensity of religious devotion and the costs such devotion can exact. And it can’t be ignored that “Novitiate” is a film made (very well and very sympathetically) by a woman, with women in front of and behind the camera, about a community of women surrounded by but taking refuge from a society — and a church — run by men.
Sister Cathleen is unlike the other postulants, or first-year nuns, in that she comes from a secular home, with a chain-smoking single mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), who’s mortified that her only child has embraced a faith she herself long ago gave up. As far as Nora is concerned, Cathleen has joined a cult; as far as Cathleen is concerned, she’s finally found a home.
By opening her film in 1964, at the moment centuries of church dogma were being overturned by the liberalizing efforts of the Second Vatican Council, Betts dramatizes a faith at war with itself. The Order of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose in the American South (the movie was filmed in Knoxville) may be far from events at the Vatican, but each new encyclical — ordering Masses to be said in English and other momentous changes — seems to tear at the heart of an inherently conservative tradition.
They certainly tear at the heart of Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire, a drill sergeant of a nun who hasn’t left the convent in 40 years and who is played by Melissa Leo in the kind of overheated, actorly portrayal that gets nominated for major awards while remaining, at heart, fairly awful. Reverend Mother is given to crumpling up the latest orders from the Vatican with an enraged “Arggh!,” and she’s definitely opposed to the church’s efforts to retire such spurs to devotion as flagellation.
Leo can be an actor capable of great subtlety and the character has her moments of quiet as well as storminess and steel. But this is a performance in the school of late-period Al Pacino, thickly sliced ham from an actor who should know better.
By contrast, Qualley (who played the daughter on TV’s “The Leftovers”) has a simplicity and intensity of presence that kindles a glow at the heart of the film. Cathleen is both the worldliest and most naive of the girls entering the Order at the start of the film, and Betts uses rich, dark hues in the cinematography (by Kat Westergaard) and a combination of modern and classical sacred music on the soundtrack to re-create a hidden world of visual and spiritual power.
There are doubts as well, and much of “Novitiate” concerns Sister Cathleen’s crisis of faith and growing need for human connection, mirrored by that of a slightly older nun (Dianna Agron) whose intelligence and sophistication put her at loggerheads with Reverend Mother and ultimately the church. The movie deals with the characters’ sexual urges and pinings for a greater intimacy than the daily period known as the Grand Silence can give them. It also casts a cold, clear eye on more abusive practices, including daily self-criticism sessions called the Chapter of Faults, in which the young women’s egos are ground down to obedient nubs.
For these and other reasons — among them the relationship that simmers between Sister Cathleen and an older nun named Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan) — “Novitiate” has been condemned by the Catholic League as a film whose “goal is to get the audience to hate the Roman Catholic Church.”
That’s just fire and brimstone. The goal of this deeply felt but often pat film is to explore an ancient institution as it grapples with changing times, to bear witness to a gathering of complicated and very human women, and to attend to the awakening of one girl’s spiritual yearnings and her struggle to keep the flame lit as the winds shift around her.
Written and directed by Margaret Betts. Starring Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 123 minutes. R (language, some sexuality and nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.