Faith of Our Mothers: Maggie Betts' 'Novitiate' explores an era of change in the Catholic Church

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What do moviegoers think about when it comes to movies about nuns? Perhaps sweet pictures like Lilies of the Field, The Song of Bernadette, The Nun's Story (featuring Audrey Hepburn at her most guilelessly wide-eyed) or The Sound of Music? Or maybe the creepy ones, a la Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, Michael Powell's discomfittingly sensual Black Narcissus, the psychodrama Agnes of God or Dante Tomaselli's spooky Desecration? Or perhaps it's not a subject most people give much thought to—even Catholic-school students are more likely to be there because their parents were looking for a less expensive alternative to private school, rather than out of a deep commitment to giving their kids a religious education.

And yet here's Sony Pictures Classics’ Novitiate by writer-director Maggie Betts, who's as tough to pin down as her first fiction feature, which spans the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, when the times they were a-changin', and which won Betts a Breakthrough Director Award when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film centers on Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley, daughter of model-turned-actress Andie MacDowell), the child of a divorced, fiercely non-religious mother (Julianne Nicholson), whose counter-counterculture rebellion against the era of free love, mini-skirts and "smoke ’em if you've got ’em" drug use takes the form of an equally fierce determination to become a Catholic nun, a devout Bride of Christ complete with joyfully weeping parents, a wedding ring and a floor-length white wedding dress and veil.

Born and raised in New York City, Betts lives in a West Village townhouse—presumably a perk of being the daughter of real-estate developer Roland Betts (owner of Chelsea Piers) and his wife, Lois—and spent her early 20s going to high-profile parties and showing up in pictures that described her as a "socialite." By Betts' own account, she was "unfocused and self-absorbed" until family friend Laura Bush—yes, the former First Lady; Betts' parents and the Bushes are friends—told her she needed to do something useful with her life. And so she did, getting involved with AIDS charities and making the 2010 documentary The Carrier, about a Zambian farmer's wife (one of three) desperate to avoid passing the disease to her unborn baby. Betts followed The Carrierwith the 2014 short The Engram(an engram is a "memory trace"), and now Novitiate. (A novitiate is a religious novice, a young woman in the earliest stage of training to enter a religious life.)

"I was always interested in religion," says Betts. "My mother is very religious and I'm spiritual, but we didn’t grow up going to church; organized religion wasn't part of our lives. But my mom has a deep faith and belief in God that was quite mysterious to me…she takes it very personally and I was always fascinated by that.

"About four or five years ago when I was working on The Carrier, I picked up this book, a biography of Mother Teresa called Come Be My Light. I was in an airport and Mother Teresa had recently died and was in the public conversation, so I was like, 'I have a 12-hour flight and I might as well learn a little more about her and her [life].’

"The book turned out to be about Mother Teresa's relationship with her husband—the ups and downs and the volatility…it wound up being very painful-sounding. The way she described it was an unbelievably sort of torturous experience of being in love for 40 or 50 years with this partner who was coming and going and would move out on you and then come back and it was literally so intensely described that I had to pause while I was reading.  I was like, 'I didn't know that Mother Teresa had a husband… I didn't know that a nun could be married.'

"It was sort of confusing; I'd see the word 'God' pop up frequently and it took me a minute to realize that this love relationship she was describing that was just sointense and borderline unbearable was with God…that Godwas her husband. I didn't know then that nuns were married to God and I didn't know that they literalized the relationship or that the intensity of the relationship was on par with any love or that nuns also need an opportunity to explore a story that focused on the way women loved and what would also appear to be unnecessary pain they put themselves through—I mean all women, not just nuns—to earn a man or a partner's love. That was really very interesting to me; it was looking at the way nuns' relationships with God evolved; it had the same kind of longing, pain and self-torture you see in women who stay in relationships that maybe they shouldn't be staying in…relationships that I've had."

Following The Carrier, Betts found herself thinking and talking about making a film that addressed religion directly, both in terms of belief and iconography, so it's hard not to see Novitiateas that film. "Yeah, I guess so," she admits. "I mean, yes, this is a film about religion and I worked on it for six or seven years." But unlike such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who grew up immersed in churchgoing, religious street fairs and festivals, Betts absorbed the imagery through movies and television. “I didn't get [religion] from going to church," she says, "but I loved A Nun's Storyand other religious movies… [I got] the intensity of that religious iconography and those motifs from cinema. And the poetry of the language, the passion of the language is really profound to me."

When Pope John XXIII announced the creation of Vatican II—the Second Vatican Council—in January 1959, it was the beginning of the end of the incense and pageantry that separated the Catholic Church from its Protestant cousins and defined the specialness of life as Catholic nuns and their devotion from that of other Christian denominations.

"I hadn't heard of Vatican II," Betts notes, "and learning about it came out of scouring every former nun's memoir I could find. The through-line of the majority of books—I read 30 or 40 actual memoirs—was the topic that generated real discussion: Vatican II. So I felt like examining that could be really, really interesting."

In the 21st century, the world of Novitiate seems deeply alien even before Catherine and her classmates begin their transformation from ordinary adolescents into warriors for Jesus: The 1960s were on the cusp of a radical change in American society and in an age when 12- and 13-year olds now know more about sex that many adult women did when they got married then, the giggling innocence of the aspiring nuns lends a dreamlike eeriness to their introduction to schooling that's designed to weed out the ones who won't be able to resist temptation when it finally comes knocking. Betts' vision juxtaposes the idyllic-looking school, a sprawling campus of handsome old buildings and lush green lawns that recalls Harry Potter's Hogwarts, and the fierce war being fought for the girls' spirits. Everything has a sense of fairytale enchantment until two students are briskly expelled when their "inappropriate" friendship—one that hints delicately at the sort of "unnatural affections" that inevitably spring up at the corner of single-sex environments and raging hormones—threatens to undermine their complete devotion to becoming God's frontline warriors, learning to perpetuate a system that's both oppressive and eerily beautiful. Betts captures the way the aspiring novitiates channel their energies into a system that's both oppressive and liberating. And again, Betts found her inspiration in Mother Teresa.

"She'd had like a 20-year dark night of the soul…and I became fascinated by the idea of a woman—an older woman—who was going through a divorce that was just a crippling, daunting, horrific divorce, the way I've seen women in my own life go through divorces that really knocked them over. But this was a woman who was married to God, so the audience would see this woman going through this extraordinary pain and believe it 100 percent, but also have that question going on, like 'Is this self-perpetuated?'

"So I started stream-of-consciousness writing the Reverend Mother character…this crumbling character, this woman whose "man" is leaving her and she doesn't know what to do about it, but layered on top of that, for all these other women she's the authority, the person God speaks to and through and…she's still responsible to communicate His wishes to them even though He's not talking to her anymore."

As played by veteran character actress Melissa Leo, the Reverend Mother is a vision of what Cathleen and her classmates both fear and aspire to, reminiscent of the battle-hardened sergeant in basic-training movies like An Officer and a Gentleman, the embodiment of a system designed to weed out the weak and the too-sensitive to make the cut, but also the image of what trainees aspire to be, even if they don't yet fully realize it.

Betts also found inspiration in Lars von Trier's deeply divisive Breaking the Waves, which at first glance appears to be an entirely different kind of film about spiritual awakening and the masochistic allure of self sacrifice: "I remembered that there are those really incredible scenes of Emily Watson having these almost schizophrenic conversations…where she would say one thing as herself and then her voice would switch to God's and God would scold her—that movie was just so profound to me on so may levels and those scenes just jumped out at me. But Watson's character was presented as an unstable woman and I didn't want to focus on an unstable woman; I wanted to focus on somebody whom the audience believed was totally rational and sane. Still, this thing of a woman torturing herself in a church and talking to God kind of evolved into the final scene with Melissa's character in the church. And then that led me into a research phase… I wasn't Catholic and didn't have a background in Catholicism, so I hired a young woman from NYU as a research assistant and tried to get all the books on this subject matter. We spent three years on and off, studying for a month or two at a time and then I'd leave to work on other things and then we'd come back to it.

"We created what was almost like a 40-page technical document about every aspect of being a nun. It started with Catholic school and went on to 'What is a vocation?' and 'fostering vocations' and then we'd write a description of what this step was and then we'd find every personal quote we could about this aspect from memoirs or whatever. Prior to Novitiate,I had only made a documentary, so I hadn't worked with actors and it all felt very heavy to me—like thick, black stone. Then I made a short film [Engram] and for the first time I worked with actors and I saw how everything brightens. That was when I thought, 'Oh, I can actually dothis now that I understand what actors bring to the process with their hearts, with their eyes…how they actually create the world.’

"It's unfortunate that because I wanted to focus on drama in relation to this life, characters like the Reverend Mother and Cathleen, who have crises going on, came to the foreground," Betts continues. "But there were also women I read about who had been in this life for 40 or 50 years who seemed to have discovered a beautiful, completely fulfilling life; they didn't seem to be faking it—you could see this sense of fulfillment and I just found that absolutely fascinating. That doesn't make for great drama, but it was something that I wished I could show more of because it's an equally important part of the story.

"I remember this one quote from this book The Scent of God: A Memoir [by Beryl Singleton Bissell] about the Chapter of Faults [a ritual in which members guilty of some transgression of community rules publicly confess their transgressions], and this one woman said something like 'On most days the Chapter of Faults was a routine affair, but on this particular day the Reverend Mother was in some kind of mood and it turned into an interrogation like I'll never forget.'"

Once the pieces began to fall into place, Betts saw that Novitiate wasn't just a story about religion, or a period piece about the 1960s or a variation on Mean Girls with wimples and stained-glass windows. "The thing that first hooked me was how completely fulfilled and self-contained a large number of these women felt in the world of their convents or amongst this community of women and a life of prayer and meditation. I was just fascinated by how it seemed to transport them to a place where more earthly, more material needs really did just fade into the background.”

Betts' film is neither gleefully lurid like “Cult,” the current season of “American Horror Story,” nor a family-friendly romp like Sister Act; she wanted to capture both "vivid colors and youthful energy" and a real sense of the sacrifice entailed in dedicating one's life to a religious vocation. In the end, Novitiate is a testament to Betts' unfashionable willingness to put her faith in, well, faith.