Before writing the screenplay for “Novitiate,” Maggie Betts didn’t know that nuns were in romantic, lifelong relationships with God. She discovered this after reading an “emotional biography” about Mother Teresa.

“[The relationship] was so passionate, and it was so complicated, up and down and difficult,” Betts told The Lily. “It felt so familiar to me. It bared so many of the same characteristics of so many love relationships that I myself had been in.”

The turbulent romance inspired her. In “Novitiate,” Betts explores the sacrifices women made to become “brides of Christ” in the Roman Catholic Church during the 1950s and 1960s.

Betts isn’t Catholic, but she took about three or four years to research the film, which she also directed and executive produced. She read memoirs by ex-nuns, many of whom had left because of Vatican II, an initiative by Pope John XXIII to modernize the Catholic Church. Vatican II encouraged Catholics to befriend non-Christian faiths and loosened mass practices. Priests no longer had to address the liturgy in Latin with their backs to the congregation. Nuns weren’t obliged to dress uniformly or remain confined to their convents.

The director spoke to former nun Deborah Larson Cohen, who wrote “The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun’s Story.” Mary Ann Weakley, a former nun who wrote “Monastery to Matrimony: A Woman’s Journey,” was a tech adviser on the set of “Novitiate.”

Using her research, Betts was able to craft a group of complex young girls who enter the convent for different reasons.

The main character, Sister Cathleen, is played by Margaret Qualley. After her parents split, Cathleen lives with her non-religious mother. When she gets a scholarship to attend a Catholic school, Cathleen latches onto God and tells her mother she’s leaving to join a convent at 17. There, she meets others who are hoping to enter the novitiate. One is Sister Evelyn, portrayed by Morgan Saylor. Evelyn comes to the convent because her “mother always said at least one child should be sacrificed.”

Scenes from “Novitiate.” (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)
Scenes from “Novitiate.” (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)

During their training, each sister is forced to confront their doubts about entering into a marriage with God. Intimacy is only for him. Any other kind — including eye contact with fellow sisters — is off limits. They also face the wrath of the Reverend Mother, played by Melissa Leo, who proudly tells the new postulates that she hasn’t left the convent in 40 years.

This is Betts’s first feature film. At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, she was named best breakthrough director for “Novitiate.” Her other work includes “The Carrier,” a documentary about an HIV-positive and pregnant mother in Zambia, and “Engram," a narrative short film about memories. She talked to The Lily about her personal relationship with religion and the intimacy we see in “Novitiate.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Lily: You mentioned the passionate relationships that these women had with God were similar to ones you’ve been in. How did you write that without a physical presence of another man or woman in a scene?

Maggie Betts: It started with writing the character and what’s going on inside the character. For example, Sister Cathleen was sort of brimming with this kind of love that in a lot of ways is sort of misplaced. There’s too much of it, and she needs to figure out something to give it to. It’s this desperate craving for intimacy that I felt at that age. If you get in a human relationship and it could potentially fail you, it would be too painful, too disappointing. She has this incredible longing for intimacy combined with this incredible fear of somebody letting her down.

Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen. (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)
Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen. (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)

The idea was to create that character first, and Margaret Qualley also did a beautiful job of living in that emotional place, especially in those scenes where she’s kind of alone in her bedroom talking to her God. Based on the way that women in these memoirs had described it, I saw it as a love relationship, like whispering to a boyfriend but nobody’s there.

When I was a girl that age, I wanted a boyfriend so bad that I would hold the pillow next to me instead and whisper sweet nothings back and forth and hug it really hard like it was some boy I liked. I was trying to guide Margaret to capture a bit of that: When you’re a kid and you have a made-up boyfriend.

TL: I’m sure that when you did that, you weren’t 18. Or maybe you were.

MB: No, I was a bit younger. Whether or not I was whispering or whatever, I’ve had that moment of feeling so alone and longing for someone to be there so badly that you need to create a presence. Not in an irrational, insane, juvenile way. It’s hard to describe.

TL: I get it. I sound like a mom, but Sister Cathleen seemed almost too young to be that passionate.

MB: Most of the ex-nun memoirs were written by women who had been teenage girls in the ’50s who were going into the convent. There were definitely many things I read where they sort of created Jesus or God like a teenage matinee idol like an Elvis Presley or something like that. There was also something very unsophisticated — and I don’t mean that in an insulting way — about it. They felt much younger than the average 18-year-old or 19-year-old that you might encounter. But that sort of had to do with the time period.

Maggie Betts. (Courtesy of Maggie Betts)
Maggie Betts. (Courtesy of Maggie Betts)

TL: Do you have any relationship with Catholicism?

MB: No, I’m completely looking at this world from the outside. I did a lot of research, in the same way that Steven Spielberg [made] a movie about slaves brought over to America in the 1800s.

The thing that was sort of an emotional connection to me was that my mom, who is not Catholic but grew up Baptist, has a deep faith, and she kind of had to give it up for her family.

I was also really fascinated [with that]. From the outside looking in, I was really seeking to understand what that relationship with God means to someone who takes it that intimately and deeply and seriously.

TL:What do you mean she gave it up for her family?

MB: My dad worked really hard, and he only had weekends to be with his kids. My mom would stay at home, so she would be with us all the time. But [my dad] said he only had the weekends, and he didn’t want to spend it in church. If my mom had raised us in a way that she wanted, we probably would have gone to church every weekend. Instead, we went on Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve and all of those [holidays]. It felt like something that she gave up for us, in a weird way. There was a sense of loss that I picked up on in her whenever religion or God is mentioned. It’s something that she carries a sort of loss about, so I was touched by that.

TL: Did she continue to believe in God?

MB: Yes. My dad believes in God too, and he’s sort of Christian Anglo-Saxon, but he doesn’t practice it.

I remember when we were young, my sister kind of jokingly said she didn’t believe in God when we were sitting at the dinner table, and they both were pretty upset.

TL: If you don’t mind me asking, do you believe in God?

MB: I don’t identify it as a man in the sky. I don’t necessarily identify it as the stories in the Bible, but I do believe there is something that is guiding our lives and something larger than us. I believe in things like destiny. I would not describe myself as atheist.

TL: In the movie, there is this insane cruelty that you see from the Reverend Mother. She so loves God, which is seen as this pure act by society, yet she has this very tough exterior. What was that conflict like in her?

MB: On a much, much larger thematic level, the character does embody some of the issues I personally have with organized religion. This organization is mainly there to facilitate this beautiful, intimate personal relationship between an individual and God, [but] shows abuses of power that are unrelated to that relationship.

That’s kind of what the Reverend Mother is. Her job is to train them in how to love. In a sense, the church is embodied by a woman, and she does bare those characteristics. I did want her to seem super vulnerable as well. I did want the audience to feel badly for her, and for people to think about the sacrifice someone might make [dedicating] 40 years of yourself to someone or something. Having that kind of invalidated would rattle you and not make you the most stable human being. I don’t consider her unstable, but she’s going through a lot.

What I hope the audience would interpret is that this woman wasn’t this bad before Vatican II began creeping into her life, as if you had seen the same story with the same characters told in 1952 as opposed to 1962. Yes, she’s really tough. She’s strict. She’s no bullshit about what she’s doing. But at the same time, this is the effect of something that is shaking her world.

Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother. (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)
Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother. (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)

TL: Cathleen obviously plays a huge role. But I think Evelyn was such a great partner pairing.

MB: Sister Evelyn came from a certain type of young woman that came up a lot in the memoirs in my research, where they really had no sense of their own mind, and the parents were determined from before the kid was even born that at least one of their kids had to be a nun. She doesn’t really have the inner-strength to push back on that. She’s kind of stuck in the situation she’s in. I wanted the audience to feel the parental pressure.

That’s universal. Parents push their kids into a million different things that if you’re not strong-willed enough, you might end up in a situation where you’re wondering, “How did I get here?”

“Novitiate” is out in select theaters.

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