Novitiate Takes Us Behind The Convent Walls, Into The Secret Lives Of Nuns

Photo: Courtesy of Maven Pictures.
Few vocations are as mystifying as that of nuns. What do they do all day, behind those convent walls? And what compels them to choose this life, and leave their family, friends and the ability to hug people behind? In both pop culture and history alike, nuns have been portrayed as a lowly, repressed bunch; the expectation is that they’ve chosen to live the rest of their days in a convent as a last resort. But it requires grit and determination to willingly become part of a community that is far more personally and professionally demanding than it’s given credit for.

And while nuns take a vow of chastity, they constantly grapple with the very same heartaches, hang-ups and happiness that we do in the various relationships we keep in our respective secular lives (Just instead of experiencing the agony of waiting for a crush to text back, they pine over God). The gnarled relationship that nuns have with God — and by extension, themselves — is what spurred writer and director Maggie Betts to write the screenplay that would become the film Novitiate, which just saw its Sundance Film Festival premiere.

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It was the most passionate, volatile, dysfunctional, insane relationship that mirrored so many sorts of crazy love affairs that I had either had myself or friends had experienced.

Margaret Qualley
Several years ago, Betts picked up a biography of Mother Theresa, expecting it to be an overview of her life and work. Instead, she was surprised to find it replete with letters that Theresa had written to friends, detailing the relationship she had with God. “It was the most passionate, volatile, dysfunctional, insane relationship that mirrored so many sorts of crazy love affairs that I had either had myself or friends had experienced,” Betts says. That wasn’t the only revelation she picked up from the book, either. “I didn’t know that it was a literal as opposed to a symbolic relationship,” she says. “I didn’t know that they put themselves through hell and back in regards to the intensity of the affair.”

That intensity has a name. The Novitiate is the grueling process of discipline that nuns must go through before they take their vows and participate in a formal marriage ceremony to God that symbolizes their becoming part of the sisterhood, and which is detailed in Betts’ eponymous film. In Novitiate, Margaret Qualley gives a resonant performance as Cathleen Harris, a soft-spoken, headstrong 17-year-old girl in the 1960s who decides to join a convent in Tennessee against her mother's (Julianne Nicholson) wishes. There, her relationship with God is put to the test. She encounters an unlikely sisterhood of fellow would-be nuns, including Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), one of Cathleen’s teachers and mentors who is having doubts of her own, and the mighty Reverend Mother, who is played with verve and terror by Melissa Leo.

Novitiate embraces another sisterhood, besides the nuns, and it is the one that made the film possible. By Qualley’s estimation, 99% of the cast and crew were female, and that’s precisely how it was possible to make. “I think it would have been a major injustice to do this film in any other way,” she tells Refinery29. “It’s a film about women, about nuns. I don’t think that it would have been right for a man to direct this film and it wouldn’t have had a feminine sensibility to it.” The experience of working with a predominantly female cast and crew, which Qualley is quick to note is “unfortunately not that common,” drew her and Agron to the script. Betts workshopped it with a former nun who left the Catholic Church following Vatican II, the series of radical renditions Rome made to the religion’s highly traditional services in the 1960s.

Vatican II was central to the creation of the Novitiate story, a drastically different project than Betts’ 2011 documentary The Carrier. After she had poured over the Mother Theresa biography, Betts says she read the memoirs of two former nuns, “and the thing that came up the most again and again and again was about how traumatic the Novitiate was, and how Vatican II changed everything and they left.” During that period, thousands of nuns left the Church after feeling disillusioned, disenfranchised, or both. It’s in this time that we find the characters of Novitiate, both younger and older sisters, struggling to understand what their calling is in the light of such tumultuous change.

While the subject matter of Novitiate might make you think otherwise, one of its great strengths stems from Betts’ ability to balance objectivity amidst a subjective theme; viewers come out of the film seeing both the ecstasies and the evils of religion, regardless of their personal beliefs. Qualley says she isn’t religious herself, and Agron grew up Jewish, but the film’s faithful bent also factored into their interest in taking on these respective roles. “I always was quite fascinated with other families and what their religious commitments were,” Agron says. And to prepare for the role of Cathleen, Qualley went to church, read the Bible and even stayed in the convent (formerly a women’s Methodist college in Nashville).

No matter how strong or capable you are, there are periods of your life where you have not been made to feel that way.

Dianna Agron
But it’s not just the intricacies of religious commitments that make Novitiate a compelling watch, though. What’s striking are the broader themes the film touches on—such as conflating guilt as a way to receive love, and the flawed pursuit of perfection—as well as their universality. Particularly for women, who are socially conditioned to seek perfection. “No matter how strong or capable you are, there are periods of your life where you have not been made to feel that way,” Agron says. "You’ve not been encouraged to.” Qualley nods in agreement, adding, “There’s a moment in the film where you’re going into each girl’s bedroom, and you’re hearing them apologize and punish themselves and pray to God for their sins of that day. I think that’s an interesting window into the mind of a teenager, and using God as a vessel or a representative of our inner judgments that are there throughout our lives.”

No matter if you’re a spiritual person or not. There’s a reason to have faith in people like Betts, Qualley, Agron and the rest of the cast and crew of Novitiate; these are women who are creating incisive looks at cultures that are perhaps underrepresented or misunderstood and can bring the humanity out in them. Not to mention ones that cause us to examine our consciences, and how we treat ourselves. “I hope that you can watch this and see that making yourself feel incredibly guilty and striving incredibly hard to be perfect is unrealistic, and perfection is unattainable,” Qualley says. “And that hopefully you can ultimately you can be happy in your own skin, whatever that is.”
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