Set against a backdrop of the Second Vatican Council — the early-1960s reassessment of Catholic doctrine and practice, known informally as Vatican II, that ushered in an era of relaxation and openness — the drama "Novitiate" paints a picture of transformation. Not of a church in transition, but of a nun.
Make that two nuns.
First and foremost, "Novitiate" tells the tale of Sister Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), who, as the film opens in 1964, is a young Catholic novice, or nun-in-training, at the convent of a fictional religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Rose. As Cathleen undergoes the hardships of her novitiate year — periods of enforced silence and public confession of faults in front of her peers — we are shown a young woman who, from an early age, was rock-certain about her devotion to God. Flashbacks to her parochial-school education and pre-novice year as a teenage "postulant" supplement the main plot.
But when Cathleen meets, and falls for, a novice (Rebecca Dayan) who has transferred from another convent, our heroine — who has never even kissed before — begins to question not just her religious convictions but also her sense of self. "Novitiate," in other words, isn't about a woman entering the cloister, but one coming out, as it were, a chrysalis.
Parallel to this metamorphosis, in an artful yet flawed first narrative feature from writer-director Maggie Betts, is the transition undergone by the convent's Mother Superior (a sublimely steely, even sadistic, Melissa Leo). Reverend Mother, as she is called, is unhappy about the fresh air blowing in through the window that Vatican II has thrown wide open: No more Latin Mass; the option for nuns to put aside formal vestments in favor of civilian clothing; and the disapproval of using such forms of "extreme penance" as the scourge, or cat-o'-nine-tails. (Cathleen partakes of this lash, willingly, after waking one night in the throes of what appear to be sexual fantasies.)
Betts has put together a talented acting ensemble, and the performances are, for the most part, uniformly good and subtle, particularly among the actresses who play the young novices. Leo gets a mite carried away in one scene, in which she writhes on the floor of the church while delivering a "My God, why have you forsaken me?"-style monologue.
That's right, it's a monologue.
Reverend Mother's prayers aren't answered. But neither, for that matter, are Cathleen's, exactly. The film ends not with an unearned epiphany, but with a question hanging on our protagonist's lips.
Betts's screenplay is, despite the rare moment of excess, respectful, sensitive and observant. One fairly ridiculous scene features an older nun who, after the Vatican II changes have been announced, enters the refectory in the middle of dinner wearing her wimple — and little else — as she declaims about her "untouched, virginal flesh."
"Novitiate" is less about losing religion than it is about finding oneself. That's a valid journey, but it's far from the hardest one that Betts could have taken. Stories of cinematic disillusionment, it seems, are a dime a dozen, but ones about finding faith, even in the face of silence, are all too rare.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, nudity, sexuality and brief self-flagellation. 123 minutes.