What motivates a girl to join a convent and give herself over to Jesus Christ? That’s the question writer-director Maggie Betts attempts to answer in her compelling drama Novitiate. The story is set in the early 1960s for a specific reason. This was the era of Vatican II, the groundbreaking series of reforms that shook the Catholic church: forsaking Latin in favor of English, relaxing other ancient customs, and demoting the status of nuns.
Margaret Qualley plays a teenage girl who’s a loner and something of a misfit. . Encouraged by one of her teachers at the Catholic school she attends, she enters a convent and begins the arduous process of becoming a nun. Her mother (Julianne Nicholson) is puzzled, even horrified, by this decision but can’t change her daughter’s mind. Meanwhile, Qualley has to deal with the many layers of discipline she faces at each stage of her transformation.
Melissa Leo gives another potent performance as the Mother Superior who deals out harsh justice to her young charges, but has to suppress her own frustration with the changes of Vatican II. She has devoted forty years to the church and sees no need for reform. Leo anchors the film with her expressive face and delivery; watching her is like a master class in acting.
The supporting cast is first-rate, with Dianna Agron as a friendly nun who takes the newcomers under wing, Denis O’Hare as an archbishop, and Ashley Bell as the young nun who first encourages Qualley to look into the possibility of joining a convent.
I will confess (no pun intended) that the subject matter of Novitiate didn’t entice me…but I was being narrow-minded. This is a solid and nuanced drama that enables us to experience a world most of us know little or nothing about.