Don't mess with Melissa Leo. As Novitiate's Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire, the boss lady who calls the shots at the fictional Tennessee convent where this religious drama is based, the actress gives the kind of bravura performance that not only sparks Oscar talk but richly deserves it. She finds the tyrant in this woman of God without neglecting her aching vulnerability as she tries to hold to the ground while the ground keeps shifting.
The time is 1964, and the Sisters of the Sacred Rose, a cloistered order, are being buffeted by the sweeping reformations brought in by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Self-discipline and corporeal punishment are now frowned on the church, which no longer sees the necessity of nuns wearing habits or flagellating themselves with whips. "That's got to stop," says the local priest (Denis O'Hare). The Revered Mother sees the easing of restrictions as an insult to her lifelong devotion, especially since Vatican II has ruled that the nuns are no closer to God than the average believer. She abhors the changes brought on by a male church hierarchy that understands nothing of what goes into being a bride of Christ.
It's into this ecclesiastical storm that writer-director Maggie Betts thrusts her characters. Novitiate may go to extremes at times with its depictions of disobedience and inappropriate sexual attraction among the Roses. But the first-time filmmaker never falls into the trap of condemning or condoning what she depicts on screen. Her focus is on Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), 17, a shy girl who enters the convent as a postulant, i.e. the probationary state of entering a religious order. Her agnostic mother, Nora (a livewire Julianne Nicholson), is horrified at the notion of her virginal daughter entering this novitiate before she's even experienced life. The Reverend Mother is certainly impatient with Cathleen's questions. "Since unfortunately God Himself can't be here to run this convent," she seethes, "my voice will serve as a stand-in for His." Ouch.
Betts, who won the Breakthrough Director award at Sundance in January, shows a keen eye for setting the differences among factions in the Catholic Church against the personal repercussions that come with taking sides. One victim of going up against the Reverend Mother is Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), whose support of letting fresh, reformist air into the convent results in an exit from the Roses. Betts lets us see the world of the convent, from its "grand silences" to its "chapter of faults," in which each sister must announce her failings to the others.
And though Leo is undeniably the force of gravity around which this cast rotates, she is not the whole show. Morgan Saylor, Ashley Bell and Liana Liberato have poignant moments as fellow novitiates. And Qualley (The Leftovers) is a star in the making. The daughter of actress Andie McDowell, the young woman rivets our attention as Cathleen makes her journey to the novitiate – first through fasting and cutting, and then through the growing strength of mind that helps her make her own choices. Shot through with grit and grace, Novitiate is a potent provocation. It's also something special.