Novitiate

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Reforms? She'll have nun of that.

“Novitiate,” set in the midst of the Catholic Church’s 1964 “Vatican II” reforms, begins with 17-year-old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) entering a convent and telling us in narration: “Under everything else, we were women in love.”

She means in love with God, in the way that nuns were metaphorical “brides of Christ.” There are other kinds of love bubbling under the surface too, but the focus of first-time writer-director Margaret Betts’ sensitive, slow-moving spiritual drama is the relationship between a person and God … and how that relationship can feel one-sided.

Cathleen, raised by an agnostic and increasingly baffled mother (Julianne Nicholson), found her own way to the sisterhood after attending Catholic high school on scholarship. She has a convert’s zeal, more so than many of her sisters who grew up Catholic. Her heartfelt relationship with God doesn’t preclude having doubts, however, and her strict life as a novitiate (basically boot camp for nuns) is difficult.

That’s mostly because of the old-school Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who’s been a nun for 40 years and is 100 percent certain of everything. She adheres to archaic forms of penance, secure in the knowledge that her way of life is sanctioned by God and will never change. The Vatican II rebranding is a shock to her system. For the first time, she finds herself struggling.

Qualley (the daughter of Andie MacDowell) is a soulful lead as Sister Cathleen, showing us the convent through a newcomer’s eyes and introducing us non-Catholics to customs and doctrines we may not have been aware of (some of which have changed since 1964, and some of which change during the film). Dianna Agron is important as Sister Mary Grace, the compassionate nun between the Reverend Mother and the novitiates who tries to be a moderating influence but is uncertain of her own path.

But the emotional center is Melissa Leo’s heartbreakingly relatable performance as the Reverend Mother, a devout woman whose world is changing. You don’t have to be celibate, a nun, or even religious to understand the pain and confusion in her eyes, the feeling of being let down by a trusted institution. Betts’ screenplay and direction don’t seem intended to tear down Catholicism or religious orders, but to suggest there are multiple paths a person can take to find God.

B (2 hrs., 3 min.; R, some harsh profanity, brief nudity and some sexuality.)