Her film may have far too many weighty matters on its mind to leave much room for petty resentments, but one wonders if writer-director Maggie Betts isn’t the teeniest bit annoyed that a certain other prestige drama about Catholic self-doubt and self-sacrifice beat hers to the title “Silence.” It would certainly be the ideal moniker for “Novitiate,” a piercing, immersive, and superbly played convent drama in which the suppression of speech is witnessed at both an individual and institutional level. The film marks an impressive first foray into starring vehicles for Margaret Qualley, ideally cast as a teenage nun-in-training whose devotional conflicts coincide with the Vatican’s radical reform of the Catholic Church in the early 1960s. But the most searing material here is reserved for Melissa Leo, who’s entirely startling as a merciless Mother Superior whose very sense of spiritual purpose is rocked by the new schemata.
Boldly embracing the character’s most unhinged aspects with a healthy hint of camp, yet never rendering her inhuman, Leo’s remarkable performance should be the conversation starter that moves this challenging film onto the radar of distributors, arthouse audiences, and, potentially, awards voters. The recent commercial (mis)fortunes of Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary Jesuit epic may make buyers leery of another solemn period piece dedicated to the sometimes punishing formalities of a highly specific faith. Both tonally and stylistically, however, “Novitiate” is a very different string of beads, plunging into unabashed melodrama as tensions, attractions, and flagellations run high at the film’s fictitious Tennessee convent. Only occasionally does a wobbly strain of sensationalism creep into proceedings; Betts’s original screenplay, while not without wit, is conscientious in its theological considerations on what constitutes faith and how overtly it needs to be expressed.
Quite where “Novitiate” itself stands on religion is difficult to determine, even as the film comes down hard on the archaic Catholic rituals it depicts. After all, the landmark reformations of the Second Vatican Council, opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, also ruled against the extreme self-discipline and assumed spiritual superiority that are still favored at The Sisters of the Blessed Rose. The Roses, as they call themselves, are instructed with unremitting severity by the Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire (Leo), who forbids any line of questioning among her novices and sounds less than deferential to any higher power when she says, “You might consider me the voice of God around here.”
For shy, intelligent 17-year-old Cathleen (Qualley), the rigors of Catholic worship and schooling come as a peaceful respite from a fractured home life. Her loving but hard-shelled mother Nora (a fine, peppery Julianne Nicholson) introduces Cathleen to the Church at an early age, despite being a rigid agnostic herself. Her liberal belief that her daughter should decide on religious matters for herself takes a less open-minded turn when Cathleen announces firmly that she wishes to devote her life to God, enrolling with the Roses as a postulant. “What the hell did I do wrong?” she wails to her daughter, who initially takes to the austerity of convent life like a duck to holy water. The film splits its sympathies evenly between Cathleen and Nora on this front, recognizing the comforts and rewards of the daughter’s religious fervor, while sharing the mother’s concern that withdrawing from the outside world for life might not represent the best use of such spiritual fortitude. Wherever “Novitiate” falls on the Catholic spectrum, its perspective is not a prescriptive one.
Cathleen’s dedication to convent life wavers, however, as other girls are removed from the group for reasons that have little to do with their fundamental faith. By the time one of their instructors, the kindly, forward-thinking Sister Mary Grace (a precise, poignant turn from “Glee” alum Dianna Agron) abruptly leaves the Roses, it’s clear that something is amiss in the administration of the Reverend Mother — who can’t maintain her stubborn denial of directives from the Vatican for much longer. As her resistance attracts the attention of the Archbishop, “Novitiate” expands from a very particular coming-of-age story into a fascinating war of ideals between opposing factions and generations of Catholicism — one that bears (and more than survives) comparison to John Patrick Shanley’s 1964-set “Doubt,” in which the rulings of Vatican II also upended a conservative convent’s power structure.
Frankly, one would pay good money to see an “Alien vs. Predator”-style showdown between those two films’ formidable Mother Superiors, though Leo might just edge it. Seething, wheedling, and weeping by turns, she offers a genuinely frightening study in the potentially dangerous consequences of power assumed by invisible divinity, but she’s no two-dimensional gorgon: The mask slips at points to reveal a rather vulnerable woman, eternally unloved on Earth, for whom the Church once offered the same yearned-for security that Cathleen seeks now. Qualley, the ethereally striking daughter of Andie MacDowell, plays the perfect counterpoint to Leo’s bravura turn, her serene features nonetheless betraying a silent, agitated curiosity — both philosophical and sensual — that only voices itself at the eleventh hour.
The remaining ensemble work is as solid and finely nuanced as the film’s craft contributions, courtesy of a largely distaff crew. Veteran editor Susan E. Morse keeps the film’s many lines of argument compellingly braided over a leisurely but justified two-hour run-time, while cinematographer Kat Westergaard keeps finding unexpected pockets of light in the stark, oaky corridors of the convent, at one point filtering it through a starched, golden-white row of wimples. It’s to the credit of the film’s worldview, being more catholic than Catholic, that such an image could support any manner of symbolic reading, or none at all.