Creator of 'Novitiate' film wants audiences to focus on coming-of-age story

Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother in "Novitiate" by Margaret Betts (Mark Levine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

"Novitiate," a new film from director Margaret Betts that opens in a limited run Oct. 27, begins in rural Tennessee in the 1950s, when a young mother, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson), takes her 7-year-old daughter, Cathleen, to Mass on a whim. They are not Catholic, but Nora tells an usher that maybe going to church on a Sunday is a good thing. She'll let Cathleen choose her own church later if she wants.

A few years later, Cathleen's abusive father has deserted the family. Two Catholic sisters visit the home and invite Cathleen to attend the parochial school. Nora cannot afford it, but the parish helps. Little by little, Cathleen falls in love with Jesus, and as the years go by, she decides to enter a cloistered convent and become a bride of Christ. Her mother is against it, but Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) goes ahead.

On entrance day, the calm and formidable mother superior (Melissa Leo) tells the group of girls, "You may call me Reverend Mother or Mother, whichever you like." She is rigid, strict and lays down the rules, especially that of silence, with a steely tone of voice and a matching thin, tight smile.

Later, the girls gather on the lawn with their young postulant mistress, Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron). She's much more gentle and friendly than the Reverend Mother. One by one, the girls share their reasons for entering the convent of the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose: They love Jesus, and they want to wear the habit and be a bride of Christ. But Cathleen stuns them (and me; I'll explain later) when she says she's really not Catholic but loves Jesus and wants to be a nun anyway.

As investiture days approach, there is excitement in the air, but the pall of the Second Vatican Council has spread over the convent like a dense fog. Reverend Mother is against any changes because to accept them would be to negate all the sacrifices she has made. She argues with a priest about sharing information about the council with the nuns, but some of them find out about it and are open to the insights and changes that may come. On the appointed day, the girls dress as brides and receive the habit.

Read the full story at Global Sisters Report

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