Oscar winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) oversees a bevy of up-and-coming female actors in this drama about aspiring nuns at an isolated Catholic school in 1964, who are forced to re-examine their faith and their calling in light of the liberal reforms of Vatican II.
"It was… peaceful," is how Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) describes her first experience of church to her agnostic mother (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen's home life is seldom peaceful, but in the church and God, she finds the love that she is missing. Further entranced by the nuns at her school, Cathleen announces at 17 that she's "in love" and entering the convent. There she finds a harsh environment of devotion, the strict hand of the Reverend Mother, and the companionship of other girls similarly eager to show their love for God.
A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Vatican II and the massive reforms to the Catholic Church in the 1960s, Novitiate is a stirring exploration about women finding themselves, their faith, and their passions beyond religion. The film is host to a remarkable cast of young actors portraying the novices preparing for life as nuns. Melissa Leo gives one of the year's strongest performances. Her Reverend Mother is boiling rage underneath her vestments, angry at the changing church and its disrespect to the women who have devoted their lives to it.
Writer-director Maggie Betts wonderfully blends contemplative pacing with the emotive performances of her cast, crafting a surprisingly sexy and deeply affective story. Novitiate is a film about love — physical, spiritual, and emotional — in its many evolving forms. It's a stirring debut from a director we are sure to hear much more from in the future.