Before you start reading, be informed that having had great experience with Catholic nuns, their convents and the religion itself, and because I’m Irish and a free expression writer, I am entitled to be, from time to time, borderline blasphemous and a tad irreverent. Brace yourself.

But first let me offer partial congratulations to Margaret Betts, the talented writer and director of “Novitiate,” for a scalding, revealing and terrifying exposé of the real life behind the walls of the cloistered Catholic convents that were, for centuries, scattered about the world, and, in Betts’ world, in Tennessee.

Our novice of note is Cathleen (Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley, with young Cathleen played initially by Sasha Mason), who is from start to end, in Churchill’s words, a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Cathleen seems to have no religion, only a simmering teen-aged anger at everything.

Her mother (a very good Julianne Nicholson) occasionally has a sleepover friend whom Cathleen seems to ignore.

Cathleen has a scholarship at a Catholic school and then, in a flash, is in a convent, where she becomes a novitiate, or O.J.T. nun, and so begins her torturous tale and depressing journey into a valley of many decisions.

Having lost a beloved friend to a cloistered order, I learned that some were kind of like Stephen King’s Shawshank prison, but with better food and better uniforms.

Let me alert you: There is no “Singing Nun” in these places, no Audrey Hepburn or Whoopi Goldberg or smiling, beatific Deborah Kerr, and certainly no Ingrid Bergman.

The chorus of other novitiates include several well known and able actors: “Glee’s” Dianna Agron, Chelsea Lopez and others, all familiar faces, but because they’re all in habits and devoid of expression, Betts might as well have cast it from a Catholic girls’ senior class drama production of “Sound of Music.”

And then there is Qualley as Cathleen, who gets to unload tears, sobs and flagellation with a knotted rope, and experiences something I cannot give away.

My own Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, which was a teaching order, were fully exposed to the world and to my knowledge experienced nothing like the events in Betts’ House of Horrors.

Director/writer Betts’ convent is a real one in Nashville, Tennessee, a former cloistered order with rare family visits and no outside news or visitors. In other words, the assassination of JFK, the Korean War and “The Brady Bunch” never happened. Vatican II changed all that.

I can tell little more. You’ll have to suffer the shock and horror yourself.

Yes, there is beauty here in the tranquility of chapels, the gardens and the black-and-white figures floating behind the walls. Outside the flowers bloom, birds sing and clouds billow. Inside, the halls are dark, forbidding, and decorated in early Manderley style. Rebecca would be at home here. Cinematographer Kat Westergaard captures it all inside and out with a masterful hand.

Then Reverend Mother (an absolutely stunning piece of work by Melissa Leo) appears and takes over her domain, the screen, the movie and all the oxygen in the chapel and dining hall.

Leo’s aging nun is a work of art we have come to accept from this actor. Nothing will prepare you for her breathtaking final scene at the foot of the altar.

Qualley, who had to work extra hard for over two hours to avoid being washed away by Leo’s tidal wave of sadistic games, managed to pull out a fairly nice, but low-key performance. She should get some kind of award for appearing in the same scenes with Leo’s brute force attacks.

Betts gives us a never-ending series of shots of the novices, moving like a gaggle of goslings on their daily quotidian journey toward God.

So many pop in and out, that they gave me the sinful vision of Mel Brooks suddenly directing them into a song and dance number.

Many discoveries will plague Cathleen’s heart and soul, and if you’re an old school Catholic, I’m betting you’ll be more than a little horrified.

Dominus vobiscum.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and film actor.

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