Seeing Melissa Leo as mother superior is more than enough reason to check out 'Novitiate'.

NOVITIATE Review: A Fascinating Look At The Power Of Faith.

An award-worthy performance and a scintillating narrative make Novitiate a great film.


Novitiate takes place during the early 1960’s at the start of Vatican II – the period when Pope John Paul XXIII began reforming the antiquated aspects of the Catholic church. Margaret Qualley stars as a teen who is seeking to find her way by devoting her life to god. Melissa Leo plays the role of Mother Superior who is resistant to reform and feels that Catholocism should be anchored in tradition.


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What Worked

Qualley’s performance as Sister Cathleen is incredibly nuanced and heartfelt. Her mother lived aimlessly going from one man to another. This lifestyle traumatized her daughter. Cathleen seeks stability, direction, and more importantly, love. Qualley’s character falls in love with religion not only for its consistency but the opportunity to bring happiness to the less fortunate.

Leo gives a ferocious performance as Mother Superior. She strikes such a balance between the desire to teach others and a rigid passion for tradition. While Vatican II is preaching communication and compassion, Leo’s character is hammering silence and submission from all members of the church.

Julianne Nicholson plays Cathleen’s mother and is the polar opposite of her daughter. While Qualley’s character sees the good in the world, Cathleen’s mother is incredibly jaded. She doesn’t commit to anything other than doing just enough to help raise her daughter. Even when the question comes about religion, she won’t give her daughter a straight answer. Nicholson’s performance was extremely efficient and vital to the story that Margaret Betts wanted to tell.

Margaret Betts constructed a strong the narrative that tackles some in-depth topics. Can one find comfort in religion? How does one come terms with losing faith? Should religion evolve over time? What was refreshing is that the film doesn’t seek to solve these problems, but it certainly brings the issue to the forefront.

Cinematographer Kat Westergaard manages to make use of the natural inside the convent to illuminate the bleakest of settings. 

The resolution is far from clean, which feels warranted. People need to understand that thousands of would-be nuns left the church due to the type of tactics used by Mother Superiors across the world. There was a resistance to change, and it took the Arch Bishop in most cases in many instances to intervene to begin the evolution Vatican II sought to start.


While the subject matter might be too much for some audiences, ‘Novitiate’ is fascinating at the ripple effect change can have on an institution. Melissa Leo’s performance should garner some consideration around award season. Betts tells a fascinating tale that is certainly thought-provoking. ‘Novitiate‘ is the type of film that demonstrates the power of faith and the impact when it’s lost.

Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.
Seeing Melissa Leo as mother superior is more than enough reason to check out 'Novitiate'. NOVITIATE Review: A Fascinating Look At The Power Of Faith.