Novitiate follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a 17-year-old girl who decides to become a nun. As Cathleen struggles to juggle her faith and her emerging womanhood, senior members of the convent must come to terms with the changes brought forth by Vatican II (a Church reformation that led to the mass exodus of 90,000 nuns).
Novitiate was written and directed by emerging filmmaker Maggie Betts. Alongside Margaret Qualley, the film stars Melissa Leo, Morgan Saylor, Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberato, Denis O’Hare, and Maddie Hasson. Novitiate was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and Maggie was awarded Sundance’s Breakthrough Director Award. Novitiate is Maggie’s second feature-length film, after her well-received 2010 documentary Carrier.
Maggie’s interest in devoting one’s life to God was sparked when she read a biography of Mother Theresa. “It’s kind of a funny story,” she says. “Years before I even started writing the script, I picked up a biography of Mother Theresa. It contained all these letters about her love relationship with God. I was completely taken by that. I didn’t know that nuns were married to God in such a literal way. I didn’t know that they considered it such a romantic love relationship. I knew that they loved God, but not that it was in a sort of quasi-erotic way. That basic premise made me deeply curious. I started researching the topic casually, at first, then got more committed when I thought that it could be a good topic for a movie.”
After reading this biography, Maggie started researching on Amazon. “I found about 30 memoirs from former nuns, many of whom were living in a convent during Vatican II. A lot of the characters in the film, particularly Cathleen, are a composite of different things that I picked up from 30 different very personal memoirs of young women’s experiences in the convent. Some of the more historical aspects came from traditional history books and from talking to former nuns. I spent four years researching the topic – the research phase was actually longer than any other aspect of making the film, because it’s a very dense subject matter and time period.”
Although Maggie was practically a nun-expert by the time she came to write the script, she took certain creative liberties in her depiction of the convent. “In the sense that there are lots of different types of convents, including Cloistered convents and Non-Cloistered convents. There are also lots of different orders of nuns. The one in the film, the ‘Order of the Roses’, is made up – it’s like a composite of what both a Cloistered and Non-Cloistered order might feel like. Everything else though, the rituals etcetera, are very accurate to the time period. I took some liberties to make things easier or simpler for cinematic reasons, but nothing that interferes with the real truth of it all.”
Period films are particularly challenging to write and direct, and Maggie is glad that she set most of the film in the convent. “I think it was less challenging than it would have been if it didn’t take place inside a convent, because I didn’t have to deal too much with period cars, streets or clothes. The main challenge was capturing the mood and the feeling of the times. We didn’t have to worry too much about complicated sets or expensive costume design – the film takes place mostly in one location, and all the actors wear the same thing! The time period of the film, the ‘50s and ‘60s, was a very tumultuous period that was full of lots of change. Women in convents, though, were living pretty much the same way they had 100 years before. They weren’t very affected by the outside world and all the things going on during the time.”
One thing that did affect nuns, however, was Vatican II. This Church reform reduced the status of nuns to that of any regular practising Catholic. “By and large,” Maggie says, “Vatican II was actually a very progressive, good thing. You don’t see institutions like the Catholic Church take the time to reform and modernise themselves in such a rigorous way like that very often. I wish more institutions would have that moment. But then again, at the same time, the institution itself was so sexist – almost subconsciously sexist. They really just didn’t see the nuns as equal citizens or as part of the church in any way. I don’t think they meant to create a mass exodus or to offend the nuns as they did, but they just didn’t think of the women as whole human beings or whole parts of the church. I think that the worst thing about Vatican II is that it was unintentionally but also inherently sexist. It just didn’t take women in the church very seriously, and completely dismissed their importance.”
The character that grapples the most with these changes is the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who has lived in the convent for 40 years and dedicated her entire life to worshipping God. “I empathise a tremendous amount with the Reverend Mother,” Maggie remarks. “I think she is in an incredibly difficult situation. She comes across as really mean and unstable and crazy, but I also just see her as a woman between a rock and a hard place – someone who has been pushed to the brink. I empathise with all the characters, really, for different reasons. I empathise a lot with Cathleen – although I didn’t grow up religious or in the 1960s, lots of aspects of her coming of age experience are emotionally autobiographical. Cathleen’s character definitely reflects the feelings that I had when I was that age. Feelings of being super lost and in a lot of pain that I couldn’t quite connect to, or of feeling desperate for any kind of love or connection.”
To find the perfect actress to play Cathleen, Maggie approached various casting agencies in the US. “For Cathleen, I really wanted to find a new fresh-faced actress that was between 18 and 21 – someone who wasn’t necessarily a movie star yet. I looked at 40 or 50 young women, and I ended up casting not just Margaret but all of the roles through that process of just meeting basically every young up-and-coming actress in Hollywood and trying to find a perfect fit. I first met Margaret on Skype, and knew straight away that she was right for it.”
As for why Cathleen joins the convent, Maggie says it is open to interpretation. “The audience is supposed to wonder a bit about what causes her to join the convent. On the one hand, she seems to be almost like a very pure religious protégé, in the sense that she doesn’t come from a Catholic upbringing. She wasn’t raised in a religious household. So, in that sense, it’s like her calling is as pure as it could possibly be. There is something very sincere and honest about her desire for a closer communion with God. Then, on the other hand, I tried to show that the background she came from was very unstable from a psychological perspective – this is a troubled girl who does not feel a sense of stability in her world or her environment. You can imagine that, on a subconscious level, she may have been attracted to the environment and really to a love relationship with God because of how much upheaval she saw in her parents’ relationship and just in her household in general. So, the audience can either interpret it on a spiritual level or psychological level. I tried to weigh out that it could be one or the other.”
Maggie also hopes that the film poses questions for viewers. “I think there are some interesting ideas about the individual versus the institution – an individual person’s relationship with God and it’s such a personal, intimate thing… Do they really need this whole institution or this whole arrangement of organised religion? Do you really need that to facilitate a relationship, which is so internal and so personal, with God? Then, there’s deeper questions about spirituality and religion that I thought about while I was making it, that I would be happy if other people picked up on. Cathleen is a profoundly, deeply spiritual person – one of the questions is whether the institution is enhancing and deepening her spirituality, or whether it’s actually in conflict with it. If conflict is the answer, what is the purpose of organised religion? I tried to be very objective in general, but to lay out possible questions. If people picked up on these questions that’s great, but if they simply enjoyed the film that’s great too.”
The cast of this film is almost entirely female, and it’s the same story for the crew. According to Maggie, this was 100% a choice. “I felt like this was a movie about a lost community of women that once lived together, worked together, operated together and ran their own microcosmic society. I thought the best way to approach this set and the making of the movie was to get as close to that as possible. It wasn’t entirely female on set, but the majority of the department heads were female, and there were days when we had 200 female extras. Basically, the entire cast was female. I thought that the environment of the crew, and the unit of the crew, should mirror the environment of a convent. Also, I just really like working with women, and I like the energy of a female-dominant environment over a more male-dominated one. So, it was absolutely a conscious choice. It’s also something that I hope to continue doing.”
As far as female filmmakers are concerned, Maggie is optimistic. “I think that the recent awareness and re-blossoming women’s movement that’s been taking place is making people really pay attention. I’ve noticed that, to be perfectly honest, since the breakout of #metoo in Hollywood, women are being offered way more jobs. I think people are suddenly becoming more aware of the discrepancy and inequality in the industry. I think they really do want to correct it. I’m a half-black, half-white woman, and I think that I’m in a moment now where if it’s myself against a white male for a job, people are more inclined to want to hire me. People want to rectify what’s been a really long period of inequality, and I think that’s great. I think it’s a wonderful time for women in film, and I think ultimately what’s really great about it is that we are getting more diverse stories from all sorts of perspectives. We’re moving towards an entertainment culture that reflects the diversity of our culture at large. I’m totally into it and I’m happy. I do think it’s changing. I really do.”
Novitiate is available to watch in the home now, digitally and on DVD.