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Novitiate is a rare film about religion that neither bludgeons a viewer into accepting an ideology nor treats believers as misguided simpletons.

In her story about an abbey of novice nuns during the beginning of Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council in the mid-'60s, writer-director Margaret Betts skillfully wrestles with questions about faith and gender roles without condescending sermonizing. She also explores why people make the sort of commitments nuns make and the troubling line between faith and fanaticism.

Novitiate

89 Cast: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberato, Morgan Saylor, Rebecca Dayan, Denis O’Hare, Maddie Hasson, Ashley Bell, Eline Powell

Director: Margaret Betts

Rating: R, for language, some sexuality and nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Margaret Qualley stars as Sister Cathleen, who decides to become a nun even though her dysfunctional family isn't Catholic. Her mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), simply takes Cathleen to Mass out of boredom. Nora and husband Chuck (Chis Zylka) don't get along, so it's easy to understand why Cathleen finds Catholic school and the church infinitely more rewarding than dating boys or pursuing the limited career options open to women in the early 1960s.

While Nora considers religion a waste of time and resents her daughter's devotion to the unseen, Cathleen leaps at becoming a nun.

In the order where she's taking her vows, taking a leap of faith can have grave consequences. The abbess or Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) puts postulates and novitiates through a regimen that makes boot camp seem merciful.

Many a potential nun who has entered the program -- because she has seen Audrey Hepburn's Sister Luke on the big screen (The Nun's Story) -- winds up going home because dealing with the strict discipline is simply too much. Reverend Mother conducts her business as if Vatican II were merely suggestions.

In most movies, she would be a villain, but Leo and Betts thankfully see her as a tormentor and a victim. Nuns had little or no say in the development of Vatican II and lost some of their status as a result.

While the Reverend Mother may have scared off some otherwise fine candidates, the church's new policies repelled more. While the church's more tolerant stand toward other faiths was certainly welcome, Novitiate reveals that much was lost in the wake of Vatican II.

Leo gives viewers a "serves you right" feeling when the abbess seems to mistake her own preferences for the Almighty's but can still make an audience feel her pain when decades of devoted service to the Lord are brushed aside in the service of bureaucratic whims.

MovieStyle on 12/08/2017

Print Headline: Novitiate

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