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Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is a 17-year-old woman in love – but the object of her affection is not a teenage suitor but the Lord. Drawn to the Roman Catholic Church as a young girl, despite the agnosticism of mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson), Cathleen decides to devote her life to God. But this spiritual journey is no picnic, especially at a monastery overseen by a strict Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) at odds with new Catholic reforms. As Cathleen prepares to take her vows, she also begins to question whether a life of celibacy and emotional submission is what she truly wants.

Novitiate is an immersive and absorbing narrative début from writer/director Margaret Betts. Set in the 1950s and 1960s, the screenplay delves into the changing mores of the United States and the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Betts’ direction (with an assist from cinematographer Kat Westergaard) captures the reverence of the Church, in both its austere splendor and shadowy veneer. The film situates us confidently in the rhythms of this spiritual realm through ringing bells, cavernous spaces and angelic hymns.

Thankfully, the film is solemn without ever feeling stilted. Themes related to control and submission, which evolve organically from the systems of power that separate each level of the convent, give one much to consider. Meanwhile, the young female-fronted cast is riveting. Qualley, Morgan Saylor, and Eline Powell are stand-outs as the perpetually questioning nuns-in-training. They meet their match in Melissa Leo, who gives the performance of her career as the domineering, dutiful Mother Superior. Novitiate is a spiritual film that should enthrall even the least religiously devout due to searing performances and striking period design.

 

Is Novitiate essential viewing?

Yes. This is a remarkably assured arrival for director Margaret Betts, who manages to make two hours of religious struggle involving. Much of that has to do with the efforts of an exceptional ensemble. Expect Melissa Leo to get awards consideration for her fearless work here.