“Novitiate”

Susan Granger’s review of “Novitiate” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Novitiate

Spearheaded by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Second Vatican Council brought liberalizing changes to the Roman Catholic Church, causing a radical theological shift.

Opening with shy, 17 year-old Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) noting, “People never understand why I want to give it all away to God,” this is the story of a young woman’s religious fervor and subsequent questioning of her faith and vocation.

Raised by a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) in a non-religious household, Cathleen is given a scholarship to a nearby parochial school, where she learns about Catholicism. One day, while sitting in the quiet chapel, she feels the presence of God.

Ignoring her mother’s “There’s more to life than God and church and praying,” she enters a cloistered convent, Sisters of the Blessed Rose, as a postulant. The stern Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) introduces herself as “God’s representative on Earth.”

Firmly declaring that “God is not a fantasy, nor a daydream, and not your invisible friend,” she alone will decide over the coming months whether the young women are worthy of continuing their Holy commitment.

Admitting she was dazzled by Audrey Hepburn in “A Nun’s Story,” it’s obvious that one (Maddie Hasson) won’t last long. But pious Cathleen seems determined to survive the rigorous self-restraint and, ultimately, become a bride of Christ, taking final vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Writer/director Maggie Betts pulls back the curtain on the secrecy of convent life, revealing the mental and physical hardships the women endure, paying particular attention to the melodramatic sadism of Mother Superior, who initially refuses to abandon the draconian discipline (like self-flagellation) she’s observed for 40 years.

The anguish of Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) is riveting, and Melissa Leo delivers a powerhouse performance. (Leo used the white jersey shawl she had been given after she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Fighter” to drape, backwards and frontwards, as her character’s wimple.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Novitiate” is a solemn, soulful 6, concluding with the challenging revelation that 90,000 nuns have since left convents, renouncing their vows.

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