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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024