Margaret "Maggie" Betts - who won the Breakout Artist at Sundance this past January for her feature debut, Novitiate - isn’t new to fame. Her name first appeared in New York press a few years ago under the category of "socialite turned filmmaker."
The daughter of Roland W. Betts, a developer and former business partner of George W. Bush, she was a Princeton grad and glamorous scenester. After a heart-to-heart talk with former First Lady Laura Bush about her future, Betts decided it was time to commit herself to work.
First, she made the documentary, The Carrier (2011), a well-reviewed study of mother-to-child HIV transmission. In 2014, she shot a short experimental film called Engram about an en elderly couple who meet on a subway platform. Somewhat unusual for the launch of a short film, the occasion was covered in the New York Times and Vogue.
It was few years ago, at an airport on her way to Zambia, that she picked up a book, a collection of private writings of Mother Theresa called Come Be My Light. She was struck by how personal and intimate the nun's relationship to God was, referred to Him in the book as her "husband.” She wasn't interested in making a religious film. But the unusual nature of the love story struck her as full of possibilities.
"I wanted to make a movie first, and this was a world that allowed me to make a movie that was compelling to me about much broader subjects -- like love, the institution versus the individual. How religious people respond is really interesting to me, but it is a movie first. It's not an affirmation of someone's faith."
The decision to pick a protagonist who was not a "cradle Catholic" posed a few plausibility risks, she says. But she wanted the characters "yearning for God and faith to come from an absolutely pure place, not predicated on prior associations."
Bett, who describes herself as "an unabashed feminist and very strongly so," recognizes she brings a 21st-century secular lens to the story, though she doesn't see how it's avoidable: "Even if you write a story in a particular period, it comes from your time in your head."
Though she says she cannot relate to, "having an institution between you and something so deeply personal as religion," she understands the film's subject very well.
"It is totally about love," she says. "It's framed by, 'You are all I could ever want,' to 'I seek something more.' The first time you fall in love, it's about what can you do to make this person love you back. Should I crawl across the floor? Should I whip myself? And then, Cathleen wants something more. Something validating, equal and mutual."
The Song of Solomon — an openly sexual Old Testament poem about the maiden who notes that her beloved is pasturing his sheep among her lilies and who compares her breasts to clusters of fruit — doesn't sound holy to us today, though there's a tradition that identifies the maiden with the Church, and the bridegroom with Christ.
I was a little disappointed that writer/director Margaret Betts employs that Biblical passage in her intelligently sincere potboiler, Novitiate, about a teenager who falls hard for Jesus and his Church around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Surely, the urge to meld with the Divine isn't just sublimated sexuality?
But I could be wrong. Samantha Bee, the TV host, has described her own intense attraction to the images of Jesus as an integral part of her Catholic girlhood ("I mean, he was really designed that way for young girls to find him sexy and attractive.")
To its credit, Novitiate, is as heated with ideas as it is with fire in the flesh. Set in 1964, follows an unworldly 17-year-old, Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley, the luminous young star of television's The Leftovers) when she comes arrives at the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery. Cathleen seeks peace and purity, an alternative to her family, with her run-away dad and scrappy, working-class mother (Julianne Nicholson). Her discovery of the rituals and codes of the church is that of a naive, unbaptized outsider which justifies the movie's anthropologist-on-Mars perspective. The emphatic light and shadow of the cinematography is deliberately Old Masterly, while ecclesiastical music, both traditional and contemporary, pumps up the exalted mood.
Presumably, if Cathleen had been raised as a Catholic since childhood, the pomp and rules wouldn't seem so overwhelming. "We have two kinds of silence here, regular silence and grand silence," announces the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).
When exploring the intricacies of double-measure silence, the adolescent girls have certain feelings that become difficult to repress. As a last resort, they can resort to hitting themselves with the knotted rope Reverend Mother keeps in a drawer, though it's a toss-up whether they punish or incite those wayward urges.
I enjoyed Leo's performance as fire-breathing tragic dragon, guarding a treasure that's already been taken. She clashes with the pretty young nun (Glee's Dianna Agron) with her new-fangled notions, and later, and the condescending bishop (Denis O'Hare) who comes to set her straight about the new rules: "You honestly expected them to have their own voice, the sisters?"
Oh, those silly nuns. Bett's screenplay has a semi-feminist angle here, highlighting the injustice done to nuns, architects of the Catholic education system, who were demoted with the all-male Vatican’s council's reforms, though I suspect the mass exodus of women from the church in the 1960s was less about disappointment they could no longer follow the old rules than a taste for freedom.
Novitiate. Written and directed by Margaret Betts. Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson and Dianna Agron. Opens November 3 in Toronto (Yonge-Dundas) and Vancouver (International Village); November 10 in Montreal and throughout the fall in other cities.