Director Margaret Betts, in her debut feature film, focuses on a novice, who has just entered the order, and a reverend mother, who has been in the convent for 40 years, stereotypes, yes. The young woman and the elder have a strong connection to the Roman Catholic church.
But, it's the early Sixties, and the church is about to throw them under the bus. Vatican II declared that women religious were just ordinary Roman Catholics, not special. Betts explores how this denigration affects two sisters, the romantic in training and the other in strict order. Sister Cathleen is shown first as a girl, growing up with a mother who's a free spirit if smoking and cursing define her mores. The Reverend Mother has no name, just a title and a will of iron.
She does not graciously accept the papers slipped in to her cloister from the archdiocese. She pretends that her church is not changing, that it is perfect as is. She continues to humiliate and brow-beat her charges. Cathleen wants so much to abide by the order's rules, but she is only 18, wet behind her coif.
Betts tells this story with allusions to mass and masturbation, fasts and flagellation, and with choirs of altos and sopranos singing in dynamics.
Betts does not take a stand for or against the Roman Catholic church. So even an hour into "Novitiate," the audience is not sure for whom to root. This is disconcerting. But at the end, as the cards of history flip by, Betts explains that, after Vatican II: 90,000 nuns left the religious life.
"Novitiate" stars the inimitable Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother. All that shows is her face, but it's all she needs to portray this woman. Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) presents Cathleen well, and Julianne Nicholson is the confused mother. Dianna Agron of "Glee" fame puts in a cameo.
"Novitiate" is not great, but it is very good at presenting a notable time in church history.