One of the more intriguing narrative films screening in competition at Sundance, Maggie Betts’ Novitiate follows the experiences of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a teenager who enters a convent in the early 1960s, just as the Catholic Church starts to undergo the reforms of Vatican II. The title refers to the girls’ yearlong trial period of intense initiation, to see if they're cut out for a lifetime of marriage to God. Overseen by a harsh Mother Superior (a snarlingly good Melissa Leo), Cathleen and her comrades struggle to come of age within a strict world of constant prayer, extreme penance and regular periods of “grand silence,” when they’re forbidden from speaking. But Betts hasn’t made a standard-issue screed against the oppressive nature of the Church. These girls are devout in their beliefs, and their love for God is unshakeable. Even as they experience sexual urges and a need for human intimacy, they’re convinced these impulses are reconcilable with the life they've chosen.
Novitiate bears all the signs of an exceptional talent: Betts has a terrifically controlled visual style that matches the timeless, precise, oppressive nature of her setting. She films the rituals of this world with the exactitude of an anthropologist. And while her characters are busy denying the physical, her camera captures movement, gestures, glances — there's a whole other narrative going on just beneath the surface of the story proper. Unfortunately, Betts’ visual discipline is often undercut by her somewhat indiscriminate, on-the-nose music choices. Movie-friendly classical chestnuts such as Faure’s “Requiem” and Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle” distractingly fade in and out of the soundtrack.
More troublingly, the director wrestles with the broader, more linear story she's telling. We see little evidence of the belonging these characters keep telling us they’ve found. Cathleen is drawn to the church and to the convent as a way to get away from her parents’ nasty fights, but all we see of said fights is a brief, thoroughly generic moment of domestic chaos (“Fuck me? No, fuck you!” is an actual line of dialogue).
For all these young women’s proclamations of the greater, unwavering love they have for God, we never get into their heads or hearts — we never feel this devotion. Given where the film eventually goes, that is maybe understandable on a conceptual level: The Church ultimately fails to provide the comfort they seek. But we still need to connect to it, just a little bit, so that the rest of the movie actually makes emotional sense. There’s a lot of great filmmaking in Novitiate, but there’s also quite a bit still missing.