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Writer/Director Margaret Betts on her new Film Novitiate

What happens when a Manhattan socialite turned filmmaker (The Carrier, a  2011 doc about the AIDS pandemic in Africa) makes an impulse pre-flight purchase of a biography about Mother Teresa that contains revealing letters about her passionate relationship with God?

If you are Margaret Betts, 42, you are inspired to dramatically explore the all-consuming intimate nature of a nun’s commitment to her faith. That is how Betts decided to make her feature debut as a screenwriter and director with the just-opened Novitiate,  which follows a cloistered group of young sisters-in-training in 1964 just as the Catholic Church began to modernize its approach to spirituality. The measures also served to undercut  the influence of those who  literally became Brides of Christ when they took their vows. We caught up with Betts at the fifth annual Middleburg Film Festival – which has curated anne increasingly excellent selection of some of the year’s most thoughtful films.

Betts, who wasn’t raised a Catholic and doesn’t follow a formal religion, discusses how she became intrigued by the feelings of ardor inherent in a nun’s devotion to the Almighty, the dynamics of a female-led society cut off from the outside world and casting Melissa Leo in the Oscar-buzzy role of a Reverend Mother  who refuses to kowtow to the high-handed patriarchy behind Vatican II.

It is fascinating that a biography of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, led you to write and direct this film. That is some kind of divine intervention. Did you thank her when you won the Sundance Breakthrough Director Award earlier this year?

I should have. I was very surprised by it. I had to make a video last minute, because I was back in New York at that point. So, no, I didn’t. But I do thank her.

The fact you don’t follow a religion probably gives you an interesting outsider’s perspective on nuns during this era.

Yeah, it’s funny that I get asked that all the time. When someone makes a movie about soldiers in World War II, people aren’t like, “You weren’t a soldier in World War II?” I do get the sensitivity, though, because Catholicism is such a deep tradition. For me, the world of nuns and Vatican II and its effect on them, it’s like this context, this highly specific niche context. It allowed me to explore far more universal, broader themes than anything to do with this. The world of nuns and nuns being in love with God was a great way for me to look into the nature of the way women love. They are in a relationship but there isn’t another human being in the relationship that they are acting or reacting upon. You can see how they self-generate love and  why do you make it so hard on yourself? Why do you torture yourself?

Guilt is a big deal in Catholicism. At the heart of this film is the feeling that you are never going to be good enough to deserve God. You are never going to get there. How could you?

In terms of yes, nuns, the subject of religion, the subject of Vatican II in this historical moment. That’s all what the movie is about. But what you just said to me is something I sadly see universally in so many of my female friends. At the time when I was writing it and I discovered the Mother Teresa book and these things were coming into my head, myself and so many of my girlfriends – I’m in New York and I’m single – and I would talk to my therapist about, “Oh, I went out with this guy and that guy. I got to figure out how to make him like me.” Eventually, she kind of stopped me and said, “Every time you talk about some guy,  you talk about getting him to like you. Why aren’t you asking, ‘Do they deserve me?’  or  ‘What do you like about them?’ “So many of my girlfriends are the same in that regard. It was just so interesting to be a contemporary sophisticated woman in a city like New York, we’re dating and seeing the very same pattern is going on of not believing you deserve love or you need to be good enough to deserve your man.

Is that theme found in what Mother Teresa wrote, too?

She had a 40-year dark night of the soul, if you can imagine. She was tortured by her love affair. The letters revealed a side to her that was surprising to people who saw her in one way. Someone made a documentary about these letters. I’m not the only one fascinated by them.

It is easy to have fun with nuns in something like Sister Act. It’s much harder to get us to take them seriously, as you do.

They did come over at the turn of century and built the entire Catholic school system in this country, which then became the most advanced private school system in America. They did that on their own. They were educators and healers. I had huge respect for them.

Vatican II dropped the requirement  to wear a habit. Some nuns still do, though.

Wearing the habit is about the identity. If you told soldiers in the Army, “Hey, you don’t have to wear that uniform anymore. Just put on something comfortable,” you would be like that’s who you are, that’s your professional identity. I can see it being extremely insulting to be told you don’t have to wear the habit anymore.

One character says that she decided to become a nun because of Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story.  That is a good match for Novitiate since her Sister Luke is torn between her devotion to her religious calling and her desire to also be a nurse. And she becomes attracted to Peter Finch’s doctor. There are similar conflicts in your movie.

I thought of it a lot. It’s a huge influence on the movie.  Michael Barker, the head of our studio, Sony Pictures Classics called me out on something I messed up. That it is The Nun’s Story, not A Nun’s Story.  It is one of my favorite films, though. You can tell from the wedding scene and a lot of the Mass scenes. Director Fred Zinnemann was really into the glamour of the world and I kind of wanted to do that as well.

My favorite nun movie is The Trouble With Angels from 1966, directed by Ida Lupino and starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell as a Mother Superior.

I looked at The Bells of St. Mary’s, Black Narcissus, The Sound of Music and then the one that is so hysterical — Agnes of God.  It’s like, “Jesus, calm down.” That is too high strung for me, that movie. Meg Tilly is great but it is a hysterical movie. There is this wonderful  book called Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals  of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film  by Maureen Sabine. She traces the representation of nuns in pre and post Vatican II movies and they evolved into complete human beings. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s was a bit sarcastic but she wasn’t a complete person. Whereas when you got to Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, you are starting to see a complicated and full person.

I didn’t realize there was such a reduction in power and influence held by nuns after Vatican II, which is something Melissa Leo’s nun is upset about. She feels she is losing her grip on her domain.

When you make that sacrifice only to be told that sacrifice is meaningless.  They weren’t invited to Vatican II to have their seat at the table.

I thought Melissa Leo’s character would be a monster from what I had read. But she isn’t, even if she takes her frustrations out on her young charges.  Who thought of casting her?

She was the first person I wanted. She passed at first . Then I went back months later. And she said yes. I really wanted her. I just had this picture of her in my head.

Even though she takes out her inner turmoil on her young charges, I actually by the end felt sympathy for her  despite the fact she is so harsh when they confess their weaknesses and transgressions at the Chapter of Faults,

Chapter of Faults came up numerous times in the memoirs I read written by former nuns. There was a line in one book I read. This woman was recounting  a time when she was 16 or 17: “Normally, Chapter of Faults was a pretty mundane, routine affair. But this particular time,  Reverend Mother was in a particular type of mood and it turned into the Spanish Inquisition or something.” That’s not the exact quote, but I wanted to use it since I was making a drama.

Those scenes were my favorite even though they are so filled with tension. That discipline whip with the knots is positively medieval.

I read about some convents, whether you did something wrong or not, a bell would go off and they would all have to whip themselves for a certain amount of time, like three minutes. Then another bell would go off and they could stop.  In another memoir, a woman had said that they told them the discipline was optional but if you didn’t use it, you’d probably get called into the office. They also talk about sado-masochistic pain.

When I was young, I liked nun movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s because they focused on a  tight-knit community where females were in control during an era when they rarely were in charge of companies.

I love what Melissa did with her character.  You felt that this nun could have been a great CEO. She could have run a business. You see her as ambitious and emotionally she is all over the place. But she is running this place like her own corporation. That is why it’s so offensive when the archbishop comes, because this place is run by her.

Your lead actress, Margaret Qualley, is quite a find.  She has that ethereal Holy Card quality. It’s very cool that Andie MacDowell is her mother.

She was on an HBO show, The Leftovers, and had a small part in this Ryan Gosling-Russell Crowe movie, The Nice Guys. But beyond that, she was unknown. When you are talking about Hepburn’s Sister Luke, the first time that I Skyped with her, she had that glow. There is poster from The Nun’s Story that is almost like the shot we have of Margaret at the altar looking up. Filled with light.

This is a beautiful film to watch. The contrast between the light and dark is quite striking and painterly.

That’s our director of photography, Kat Westergaard, who was inspired by John Singer Sargent. The thing that I am most proudest of with the movie, not only is it an almost an all-female cast. It’s also an almost all-female crew in terms of the department heads except for our set designer, John Sanders, who is really into religion and Catholicism.

Maven Films, the production company behind this, is run by women like Trudie Styler and supports female filmmakers and also films that center on women. Plus, no Harvey Weinsteins on board.

We are sort of in the same world. There’s a whole group of us who are trying to make films with as many female cast and crew as possible from a female point of view.

What are you doing next? I read you are doing something tied to politics?

I’m working on two movies at once. That one I am doing with Focus. Both are majority female casts and are David and Goliath type stories.

Featured image: Melissa Leo and Margaret Qualley. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Wloszczyna

Before becoming a critic and contributor at RogerEbert.com in 2013, Susan Wloszczyna worked at USA TODAY for almost 30 years, primarily as a film reviewer and senior entertainment writer. She also was an Oscar columnist at Women and Hollywood and a regular contributor at Thompson on Hollywood. She currently freelances for AARP The Magazine and The Buffalo News. She is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Washington Area Film Critics Association and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

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