Creator of 'Novitiate' film wants audiences to focus on coming-of-age story

Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother in "Novitiate" by Margaret Betts (Mark Levine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

"Novitiate," a new film from director Margaret Betts that opens in a limited run Oct. 27, begins in rural Tennessee in the 1950s, when a young mother, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson), takes her 7-year-old daughter, Cathleen, to Mass on a whim. They are not Catholic, but Nora tells an usher that maybe going to church on a Sunday is a good thing. She'll let Cathleen choose her own church later if she wants.

A few years later, Cathleen's abusive father has deserted the family. Two Catholic sisters visit the home and invite Cathleen to attend the parochial school. Nora cannot afford it, but the parish helps. Little by little, Cathleen falls in love with Jesus, and as the years go by, she decides to enter a cloistered convent and become a bride of Christ. Her mother is against it, but Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) goes ahead.

On entrance day, the calm and formidable mother superior (Melissa Leo) tells the group of girls, "You may call me Reverend Mother or Mother, whichever you like." She is rigid, strict and lays down the rules, especially that of silence, with a steely tone of voice and a matching thin, tight smile.

Later, the girls gather on the lawn with their young postulant mistress, Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron). She's much more gentle and friendly than the Reverend Mother. One by one, the girls share their reasons for entering the convent of the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose: They love Jesus, and they want to wear the habit and be a bride of Christ. But Cathleen stuns them (and me; I'll explain later) when she says she's really not Catholic but loves Jesus and wants to be a nun anyway.

As investiture days approach, there is excitement in the air, but the pall of the Second Vatican Council has spread over the convent like a dense fog. Reverend Mother is against any changes because to accept them would be to negate all the sacrifices she has made. She argues with a priest about sharing information about the council with the nuns, but some of them find out about it and are open to the insights and changes that may come. On the appointed day, the girls dress as brides and receive the habit.

Cathleen's novitiate and the reality of Vatican II clash. A letter arrives from the diocese with a laundry list of immediate and imposed changes that Reverend Mother reads to the community against her will. One sister is so shocked she comes into the refectory naked, saying something about the changes in religious life taking away her identity. The nuns, novices and postulants just sit there; no one reacts or says anything.

Center: Margaret Betts, writer and director of "Novitiate" (Mark Levine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Finally, first profession day looms. Most of the girls have left the convent, but a few don brides' dresses once again to make their vows.

Will Cathleen stay or will she go? What does she really want?

After seeing "Novitiate," I told the publicists it was bold, provocative and artistic, and it is.

The film was shot in a former Methodist college near Nashville, Tennessee, that looks like a monastery. The habits of the sisters look authentic, and there is much in the film that has the ring of truth and a past reality.

It is highly watchable. The scene that derailed me early on, however, was that a non-baptized person would be accepted into the postulancy like everyone else with no reference to baptism or the sacraments. External disciplinary rules and rites replace any theological framework for Cathleen's inner life. This does give rise to the belief that religious formation before Vatican II was lacking in many ways, which is why the council made changes.

Almost everything people have thought secretive, odd or sensational about religious life is in "Novitiate," and it is easy to see that these came from a variety of sources and stories. There is a thin line between believable and unbelievable in "Novitiate" that some may say is exactly what religious life was like back in the day.

Leo's Reverend Mother is frightening; we get no clue as to her personal image of God and relationship with Christ. Externally, her regard for the church, for the life of the universal church, is minimal and nominal. She fits the stereotype of "the mother superior" character. Yet her humanity is so tightly wound under her habit and veil that she finds nothing joyful to transcend the harsh discipline she imposes on herself and others. It's as if she rules a convent of women dedicated to Christ, but that Christ is strangely missing. Yes, outrageous things did occur in convents, but religious life is so much more than the sum of these aberrations.

Reverend Mother and Nora are the two characters I found most compelling. Nora doesn't understand her daughter's dream to become a nun, and her anguish is subtle and therefore all the more deeply felt. The best way to view "Novitiate" is to think of director Betts as Nora: looking in from the outside, puzzled, curious, and not really grasping the essence of the vocation to religious life.

A scene from "Novitiate" (Mark Levine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Betts became interested in nuns when she read Come Be My Light by Mother Teresa and Brian Kolodiejchuk. She writes in the press notes: "This book consisted mostly of all these letters she had written to friends and confidantes throughout her life, and the letters were almost all obsessively consumed with her love relationship with her husband, and it was not at all a healthy one. It was volatile. It was unstable. It was putting her through emotional hell ... and it took me a minute to understand. I'm thinking, who is she talking about? Finally I got it — her husband is God. I'd never, ever, heard anybody — and I've been around a lot — speak about God in this insanely romantic way. Utterly obsessed with her relationship with him."

Betts brings genuine curiosity and diligence to her story of a young women entering a Catholic community of sisters in an era of great change 50 years ago. She contrasts the romance and some of the struggles well, such as maturity and sexuality, but perhaps does not go deep enough.

If this story is of interest to audiences five decades late, it will be up to them to decide. I would hope the excruciating chapter of faults is truly in the past and that women seeking entrance discern their motives well.

The film closes by noting that after Vatican II, 90,000 Catholic nuns left their orders. The film offers some insight as to why this might be so. Though the director says she loves nun films, it would seem she does not find the same meaning in their lives that she tries to describe. It is a strangely one-sided story.

I had a chance to interview Betts, who also wrote "Novitiate," by phone to talk about her film and why she wanted to tell this story.

GSR: After Mother Teresa, who were the inspirations for "Novitiate"? Did you have any consultants for the film who were or are sisters?

Betts: For one, I spoke at length with Deborah Larsen, who wrote the 2005 book The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story. I also read at least 30 books, memoirs by ex-nuns. Our consultant on set was Mary Ann Weakly, who wrote Monastery to Matrimony: A Woman's Journey in 2014. She helped run a kind of "nun camp" for the actors. I also spoke to a theology professor at Fordham University to understand more about Vatican II.

What was your inspiration for the naked sister? Was she an artistic device or a real person? Because in the scene, no one in the dining room reacted, and I can tell you that if this ever happened in a convent of sisters, then and now, there would be a reaction.

I found this occurrence in the 2001 book edited by Marie Therese Gass, Unconventional Women: 73 Ex-Nuns Tell Their Stories. Yes, she was a device to shed light on the reality of the sisters, but the idea was to express the notion of being naked before God at the same time as a clothing ceremony, and then one of the nuns losing it. In the book's account, someone does run to get a blanket to cover her with. We filmed some reaction shots, but I wanted to avoid any hint of this being a comedic moment, so we did not use them in the film.

Were you aware that even before Vatican II, a non-baptized person could not be received into religious life until she received baptism and confirmation and spent time preparing to enter?

I realize this now. But this scene was me asking the audience to take a leap of faith because my interest is broader than the specifics. I want the audience to view Cathleen's faith as coming from a pure faith, not something passed down from the family or from her sociocultural identity. I wanted to show that she was drawn to God from the purest place.

Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen (Mark Levine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Did any other films about nuns or sisters influence you?

Almost every nun movie in American cinema influenced me. I love the genre of the nun movie. "The Nun's Story" is a huge influence in my film, but it is contemporized — a retelling of the movie. "The Bells of St. Mary's," "The Black Narcissus," "Doubt" and "Ida" were also influences.

But the book Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film was a huge influence because the author, Professor Maureen Sabine, examines the representation of a nun as a holy archetype in some films to a complicated, full woman and human being in others. Films about nuns make up such an interesting cinematic genre. Connecting and adding to this canon artistically was a huge aspiration of mine.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

First and foremost, I hope that the context of Cathleen's story and the backdrop of her journey will be a platform to explore a unique coming-of-age story. The coming-of-age themes are the same as other such stories: She idealizes the relationship and diminishes herself in the relationship to a problematic level and must decide whether the relationship continues or not. She must find her own voice amid the somewhat superficial romanticized notions that some young women brought to the convent in those times.

My experience of reading the Mother Teresa book let me see nuns in an entirely different light, as these very complex, complicated, multifaceted women instead of the archetype of a woman in a rather peculiar way of life. Nuns are complex, dynamic women that led communities of like-minded women.

Julianne Nicholson as Nora (Mark Levine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

What is your religious background?

I am a New Yorker in my 40s, and I was not raised in any church. My mother was very religious, but because my father could only be home on weekends, he asked my mom that my sister and I not go to church so he could spend time with us — it was the only time we had together. Today, my mother has tremendous regret that my sister and I did not grow up close to God. Today, I do meditate, and I believe in someone or something bigger than us out there.

What did you take away from making this film?

My impression of nuns today and the deepest thing I take away of nuns of the past is that they are women who lived and live by their faith and make very profound sacrificial choices in the light of that faith. It moves me a great deal. Everything in society leads women not to choose and live a life completely devoted to God, and if someone chooses to do this, it is truly inspiring.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]