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‘Novitiate’ reverently reveals the difficult path to sisterhood

Melissa Leo towers over “Novitiate” as the unyielding Reverend Mother. | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Sometimes, a movie can sneak up on you.

These are films that slowly, deliberately unveil their message and mission across their running time, using compelling storytelling to keep the viewers engaged before landing their big punches.

Such films can be difficult to write about — after all, it wouldn’t be fair to deprive audiences of the same revelatory experience that critics get to enjoy. As a result, this writer will be treading very carefully while discussing the spiritual drama “Novitate.”

Spanning the mid-1950s through mid-’60s, the feature directorial debut of Maggie Betts chronicles the journeys of faith for young women transitioning to life as nuns in the era of the Vatican II reforms in the Catholic Church.

Betts’ film is, above all else, reverent. The film is quietly confident in its look at the sacrifice involved in a life of faith. Kat Westergaard’s cinematography is classically warm, Christopher Stark’s score is stately and gentle.

At first the viewer doesn’t quite know where to stand — is “Novitiate” shaping up to be a respectable, dignified faith-based drama about the power of belief?

Yes, and no. As a storyteller, Betts remains incredibly respectful of her characters’ beliefs throughout. But she refuses to sugarcoat the difficulty of their situation, unflinchingly looking at the turmoil such a life can cause for all parties involved.

Margaret Qualley, known for her work on the HBO drama “The Leftovers,” stars as the young woman who comes to be known as Sister Cathleen. She delivers quiet, largely internalized work, barely letting on how much her character is aching for some sort of connection and compassion until the feelings become combustible.

But it’s Oscar winner Melissa Leo who rules over the film as the Reverend Mother of the convent where the story is set. Leo is holy authority personified, only letting slip the slightest traces of pain and warmth. This is a tricky, nuanced piece of work on her part, a performance that would be worthy of awards season buzz.

Leo, in her way, embodies the spirit of “Novitiate” as she plays the Reverend Mother like a clenched fist. Just watch out for when she and the film make impact.

Alex Biese, USA TODAY Network


Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Maggie Betts. Rated R (for language, some sexuality and nudity). Running time: 123 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.