“So many people ask for a love that doesn’t ask anything of them …. I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to.”

Novitiate doesn’t play around, opening on Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) immediately explaining the crux of her personal journey through voiceover narration. I wonder if this voiceover was in the original script because Qualley’s performance doesn’t need it. Her Cathleen is a fascinatingly subdued young woman whose desire for love is conveyed much more evocatively in her furtive looks, painful tears, fearful questions, and total surrender to the Catholic church.

The movie is a spiraling exploration of what God means, specifically what it means to love God. This isn’t a Christian film per se. I didn’t walk away thinking writer-director Margaret Betts set out to convince anyone the  Judeo-Christian God was true. Rather, she uses the setting of a 1950s convent just prior to the massive reforms of the Second Vatican Council to show the ways in which religion and faith are living, breathing aspects of an individual’s life. Through Cathleen and her fellow Sisters, we see a number of reactions to the way the world is changing around them and how that defines their relationships with each other, and how those relationships define their relationship with God.

I find religion fascinating and not in the weird, distanced way that sounds. Teligion, as broadly defined, is the ultimate melting pot of anthropological, psychological and evolutionary origins of our species’ desire for stories, ritual and survival instincts. In every religion, every passion, every faith, you see it all. For good or ill. On a personal level, I have always felt deep discomfort with those who are deeply devoted to faith at the expense of others. I grew up going to church and found the messages and broader behaviors more interesting than belonging to any youth group. In general, engaging with the hyper-social aspect of religion has always bothered me. But I’ve never had trouble understanding the belief in God on an individual level – or the social cues and desires that shape it.

Despite my discomfort engaging, I have never found myself convinced that a rationalist, non-religious belief systems could take hold over people. I don’t think people are wired that way. Differences between how individuals process belief and religion are largely a matter of degree. We all have a tendency toward behavior that manifests itself as religion, and we’re all built to receive the narrative cues that serve as its bedrock. We all innately create God concepts in one way or another. Given the fundamentally human nature of religion, it seems a shame to cynically disregard it. In order to shake ourselves loose of power structures that abuse the need for faith we should really find a way to tell stories about the faith impulse in a meaningful way. Novitiate is one such story.

When watching Novitiate, I was first and foremost invested in the way Betts made a movie about the love of God while capturing the nature of that love without really defining it as unique to Catholicism. Catholicism is the historical context; the heart and mind are the story.

The film focuses on the emotional experience of indoctrination into a social order, how it simultaneously casts aside and provides a greater feeling than the alternatives presented. The script’s secret weapon is the character Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo), the leader of the convent, whose reaction to the Second Vatican Council is one of both disquiet and extreme, ritualistic violence. She’s someone who has spent her entire life devoted to God and living out the status of her position relative to him. When that changes, she becomes lost.

Cathleen’s story is a little more conventional to the genre; she experiences several heartaches on her journey to become one of God’s brides, including a brief love affair with a fellow postulant. The movie never goes to any length at defining her as any specific sexuality, and their brief physical experience isn’t filmed with an eye for rote eroticism. Like religion, the way sexuality exhibits itself is contextual, fluid, emotional. There’s a lot to Novitiate that I found fairly average, but it does a good job not trying to define things that don’t need definition.

The Reverend Mother’s experience on the opposite end of Cathleen’s life journey is a fascinating balance, and her story contextualizes the way religion is, like all aspects of life, a changing, living thing. Like a person’s faith, sexuality or lived experience, religion grows, changes and caters to the immediacy of human needs and desires. Ultimately the driving force of any religious faith isn’t the adherence to ritual but rather the feeling of belonging, wellness and social comfort.

And, like Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, we’re something left behind.

This review sounds like a love letter to Novitiate. The more I think about the movie, the more I really like it. However, there are several aspects that make the experience of watching the film less interesting than thinking about it afterward, assessing its ideas through my own experience and my broader viewpoint. I don’t actually think Leo’s character – the clear awards contender here – is serviced well by her performance. It’s an emotionally broad role and Leo has a lot to play, but I think she almost goes too wide. Her character’s story is fascinating but her depiction of it leaves something wanting.

Additionally, I feel like Cathleen’s journey, while deeply compelling, also felies heavily on some very traditional “sin and temptation” tropes common to any story about challenged faith. In broad strokes, it it feels like something I’ve seen before, but I do not know if others will have the same experience. I am content with Betts sacrificing a unique story in favor of the thematic touch she exhibits, but I feel like it’s still worth noting there’s nothing outwardly notable about the story here.

Novitiate is very much a movie defined by what you bring to it. I’m sure those with more defined religious beliefs will see something completely different. What I saw, however, is a deftly told story about a woman’s (non-pejorative) indoctrination and the fluid nature of faith and sexuality, and the way the world shapes – and is shaped by – our raw religious impulse.