Loving God is hard work in Novitiate, a confident drama of austere beauty by writer-director Maggie Betts. Though it's sometimes tough going, you don’t have to be a person of faith to submit to the film's otherworldly pull, in which wide-eyed young women willingly vacate their burgeoning lives and adolescent desires to eternally commit themselves to God. But you do have to believe in all-consuming love, which, Novitiate gently argues, is synonymous with everlasting devotion. Often graced by sacred tracks like Gabriel Fauré’s soothing “Pie Jesu,” the film tenderly charts the selfless journey toward becoming a "bride of Christ," as love in its most passionate form washes over dutiful female bodies and devours their souls whole.
Among the ensemble of naive, overzealous maidens who feel the draw of religion is Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, a revelation), a child of divorce who encounters parental abandonment at a young age. Living with her defiantly nonobservant mother (Julianne Nicholson, terrific) in a rural town in 1960s Tennessee, Cathleen finds solitary peace in the holy aisles of a Catholic church and signs up for the nun-training program at a strict convent, run by the frightening Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo, intimidating and superb).
Not every candidate survives the sadistic, humiliating rituals of the claustrophobic convent. One by one, Reverend Mother unmercifully breaks the postulants by seeing through their worldly cravings. But Cathleen stubbornly progresses in her path despite her desperate battle with doubt, sexual urges and consequent guilt. Meanwhile a new set of Vatican-issued reforms aiming to adjust the church’s outdated practices to the contemporary world casts a shadow over the convent, threatening to invalidate the nuns’ lifelong sacrifices.
Some hasty transitions throughout Novitiate show haphazard (but forgivable) seams and the larger context involving the Vatican in Rome doesn’t always mesh with the film’s endearing intimacy. But Betts aims divinely high and succeeds in both understanding and respectfully critiquing organized religion. Is faith escapism or an act of surrender? In grappling with the essence of spirituality, Novitiate—not unlike Martin Scorsese’s Silence—asks more questions than it supplies answers.