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"Novitiate" (opening Friday) is that rare new film that can inspire both a shock of recognition and a feeling of deja vu for "The Nun's Story" fans. That powerful 1959 film followed a young nun (Audrey Hepburn) into then-"Belgian" Congo and ultimately a decision to leave her order.
As "Novitiate" begins in the early 60s, we witness a class of young women with different motives for seeking a cloistered religious life. Some do cite "Nun's Story," with its rollercoaster emotional ride, for inspiring their wish to forsake a world of boys. It's a time of great tumult in society, and because of Vatican II, of upheaval within Catholic religious orders.
First-time writer-director Margaret Betts sets a challenge for herself in this Nashville-set drama: how to demonstrate to a 21st-century movie audience the much-narrower options open to young Catholic women of the 60s. Betts is skilled at showing the pressures felt by each of the young women in their bid to join what feels like a kind of sorority with nasty hazing rituals. Veteran character actress Melissa Leo steals every scene she's in with her depiction of a Mother Superior who resists Vatican II changes, including nuns allowed to abandon their habits and the conceit that they're "married" to God. Leo's Mother Superior is particularly fervent in opposing affectionate friendships among the women, which feel suspiciously like training-wheel lesbian bonds.
In interviews, Leo described her intense preparation for this demanding role. She can appear to be the heavy who subjects the young novitiates to cruel and humiliating discipline, to test their ability to subordinate their lives to the ancient teachings of the Church. They must observe vows of silence, and sublimate their desires to the will of the priests. Leo's character battles for the soul of the Church against the wishes of modernizers like gay actor Denis O'Hare's crusading Archbishop McCarthy.
Also outstanding are Margaret Qualley (Sister Cathleen), Dianna Argon (Sister Mary Grace) and Liana Liberato (Sister Emily) as young women eager to dive into a lifetime commitment (or sentence?) to abstain from sex, having children, and conversations with their friends. One subplot involves a parent, beautifully conveyed by Julianne Nicholson, who fears the restrictions imposed by the order on her daughter.
"Novitiate" premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. For a deeper plunge into this world, consult the fiction of J.F. Powers, especially his satirical 1962 novel "Morte d'Urban," about the life of a powerful Midwestern priest whose wings are clipped by his quixotic religious order.
Melissa Leo plays a Mother Superior who resists changes in writer-director Margaret Betts' "Novitiate." Photo: Sony Classics