A girl-meets-boy love story where the boy just happens to be God, Novitiate is an intriguing if somewhat opaque movie, a feverish testament to the long reach and hard limits of faith. Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) stars as Cathleen Harris, a young girl who finds respite from her chaotic 1950s home life in the soothing rules and rituals of Catholicism. At 17, she takes the first steps toward joining the local order, though it’s never quite clear whether her drastic choice is driven by true devotion or a more primal urge to go against her free-wheeling, proudly agnostic single mother (Julianne Nicholson, who walks away with nearly ever scene she’s in).
Though Cathleen is the only novitiate not strictly raised in the Church, she comes to the convent with a serenity and conviction many of her aspiring sisters lack. Some girls are there only because the choice was made for them by family or outstanding circumstances; one actually admits she signed up just because Audrey Hepburn made it looks so romantic onscreen. (It doesn’t help the film’s suspension of disbelief that her fellow brides of Christ, which include Glee’s Dianna Agron and King Arthur’s Eline Powell, are so dewy and nubile they look like a CW drama’s dream-casting of a nunnery).
But the beatific herd begins to thin almost immediately, thanks to the terrifying presence of Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother. A Nurse Ratchet in a black habit, she revels in playing the Monster Superior, fiercely declaiming herself the direct voice of God and taking a sulfurous glee in breaking down the bodies and spirits of her young postulants. Her hard shell doesn’t come from nowhere; there’s some real poignancy in her refusal to acknowledge the Second Vatican Council’s proclamations of the early 1960s. If she ignores their loosening of the rigid Church strictures that define her, she seems to believe, maybe they will just go away. (Denis O’Hare’s eyebrow-quirked Archbishop drops in to assure her they will not.)
But Leo can’t seem to help chewing her way through the pathos, and so the narrative’s heavier emotion burden falls to Cathleen, whose spiral from starry-eyed supplicant to gaunt, haunted shadow of the girl she was veers toward spiritual horror (and, for a few brief moments, soft pornography). First-time director Maggie Betts has said she based her story in part on extended research into the aftershocks of Vatican II’s new liberties — in its wake, devoted members left the Church in droves — and on personal biographies of the women who experienced it firsthand. Whether she, too, is a true believer stays behind the veil. So do the long-tail consequences of her story’s ambiguous ending, though the intrigue and imagery lingers. B