There's an early scene in first-time narrative feature director Margaret Betts Novitiate — a secular humanist drama about the religious passion of nuns, set in Tennessee in 1964 — in which a teenage novice laughingly admits that Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story inspired her to devote her life to the church.
That moment rings true, as Hepburn's performance in the 1959 film has been credited with leading many young women of the time down a path of religious commitment. Even more central to the historical context underlying Novitiate is the arrival of Vatican II during the year depicted in the film. An effort to liberalize practices of the Catholic Church and address its role in the modern world, Vatican II also led to a mass exodus from the church by nuns unprepared for a less cloistered and newly secularized role in society.
Novitiate's tumultuous social context provides a backdrop for Betts to portray the intensely personal experiences of young novices, who struggle not only with their faith but also the tremendous sacrifices required of a life devoted to their church. Betts has no religious background and was inspired to write the film after coming across a biography of Mother Teresa. The director was shocked to learn that Catholic nuns not only become betrothed to God but also experience deep romantic attachments — along with all the ups and downs associated with traditional marriages.
That distance from her subject matter allows Betts to transcend boundaries normally associated with religiously themed films. Her compassionate and utterly nonjudgmental Novitiate — which earned Betts the Breakthrough Director award at this year's Sundance Film Festival — becomes a moving study in the nature of romantic love as told from a decidedly female perspective. Don't be surprised if you end up rooting for its central character, 17-year-old novice Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), to stop short of taking her final vows and find her destiny outside the church.
Like Betts, Cathleen comes from a nonreligious background. She becomes enamored with the church after receiving a scholarship to a Catholic school, much to the distress of her free-spirited mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen's journey is one of becoming a postulant and then a novitiate on the way to her final vows. Her story overlaps with that of her convent's disciplinarian, Reverend Mother (Oscar winner Melissa Leo, Toni on HBO's Treme), who rails against the coming changes to the church and tries to hide Vatican II from all the convent's sisters.
Betts, cinematographer Kat Westergaard and a mostly female crew bring an unexpected lushness to what might have been visually austere material. But award-worthy performances carry the film home. Leo's complex, impassioned Reverend Mother leaves an indelible mark, and the luminous Qualley is perfect for the role of Cathleen. Nicholson is a revelation as Nora, especially in one heartbreaking scene where she visits her daughter at the convent and quietly reveals her abject fears of losing her forever to the church.
There are a few too many scenes of private spiritual agony in Novitiate — the two-hour film might have been even stronger with 15 minutes or so left on the cutting-room floor. But that feels like splitting hairs given the strengths of Betts' self-assured and accomplished debut, especially as the late-year surge of powerful films by and about women continues.