Maggie Betts' Novitiate bears all the signs of an exceptional talent. It follows the experiences of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a teenager who enters a convent in the early 1960s just as the Catholic Church was starting 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. 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.
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, 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. For all these young women's proclamations of the greater, unshakeable love they have for God, we never get into their heads or hearts -- we never feel this devotion.