In writer-director Maggie Betts’s exquisitely cloistered drama Novitiate, a fresh class of aspiring nuns are introduced to the harsh, sacred rigours of convent life. Their days are divided between ‘regular silence,’ during which some talking is permitted, and ‘grand silence,’ when it is expressly forbidden. Eye contact between nuns is frowned upon; physical touch is an outright sin.

Posrer for the convent-set drama NovitiateIt’s sometime during the early 1960s, shortly after the sweeping reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, which allowed nuns to shed their literal and figurative habits. But the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who oversees the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, is having none (ahem) of it. She suppresses the news of Vatican II’s decisions and continues to discipline her postulants with every instrument at her disposal – none more nightmarish than the ‘chapter of faults,’ a regular gathering where the young sisters are ordered to confess their gravest weaknesses. 

The tension Leo can generate simply by entering a room is extraordinary; the folds in her wimple look like extra neck tendons. Her performance immediately joins the all-time great screen depictions of domineering clergywomen – right up there with the late Geraldine McEwan in The Magdalene Sisters and Agata Kulesza in 2016’s The Innocents. The scenery-chewing doesn’t cancel out the emotional depth in this case; it amplifies it. This performance becomes a small masterpiece of camp humanism.

Leo may be Novitiate’s standout element, but she isn’t its centre. That would be a young postulant named Sister Cathleen, embodied with gorgeous stillness by Margaret Qualley, who defies the wishes of her mother (Julianne Nicholson) to pursue her love of God to its fullest. Sister Cathleen takes her vocation more seriously than her fellow trainees (one of them claims to have signed up after seeing Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story), which only makes her more susceptible to the more unyielding aspects of the calling.

This is an excellent narrative feature debut for Betts, who previously directed the 2011 documentary The Carrier, about the impact of the AIDS crisis on a Zambian family. Her nonfiction training can be seen in the immersive, even-handed way she captures the convent’s hushed environs and ritualistic way of life, but it doesn’t account for her remarkable skill with actors. In an ensemble without a weak link, special note should be made of Dianna Agron, gently heartbreaking as an empathetic, progressive-minded young nun who learns, well before any of the others, that you can only repress the body so long before crushing the spirit.

– Justin Chang, The Los Angeles Times

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