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Interview: Writer/Director Maggie Betts and Actress Margaret Qualley on Crises of Faith and the Feminist Undertones of 'Novitiate'

November 3, 2017Ferdosa Abdi

In writer/director Maggie Betts' debut feature, Novitiate, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is a young woman who elects to pursue a vocation as a nun. After attending a Catholic service as a young girl, Cathleen develops a pure love for God and believes that He is calling to her. However, she is soon forced to confront the institutional barriers that separate her from her pursuit of pure love. While Cathleen goes on this spiritual journey, we also follow her convent's Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who suffers a crisis of faith when the Vatican introduces Vatican II. The change shakes Reverend Mother's beliefs, and as a result, she too must find her way to God and his love.

A powerful drama set in the 1960s, Novitiate provides audiences with an understanding of the various experiences these nuns face on their journey of self-discovery. The film played at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, where I and a small group of journalists had the opportunity to sit down for a roundtable interview with Maggie Betts and Margaret Qualley. The following is a moderately edited version of the discussion in its entirety.

What was it that made you make a film about questioning the faith?

Betts: Well, I was more interested in nuns, and then in doing a lot of research you're looking at what obstacles there are in their lives, and obviously having crises of faith is a huge moment. There's even a name for it – it's such a huge part of your experiences of being a nun. So it seems like an important thing to explore if you are going to explore that world.

Was there any kind of fear that [Catholics] will reject the film? I think this was the second movie I liked after The Nun's Story.

Betts: Oh yay, that's awesome! This movie is so inspired by The Nun's Story, it's basically The Nun's Story 2.0. [laughs] I wanted to make a movie first, and this was a world that helped me make a movie to talk about things that are really interesting [and] sort of dramatically compelling to me – which are much broader topics like love or the institution versus the individual. So, how religious people respond is really interesting to me, but it is a movie first. It's not meant to be some kind of affirmation of somebody's faith.

This film shows two sides of Catholicism – two sides of Christianity, the old and the new – where Melissa Leo is kind of struggling with the updated version. So when studying that, did you talk to any nuns about how to handle that and how to portray that on-screen?

Qualley: We did. Maggie brought in a couple of former nuns that told us about their experiences within the convent and also taught us some sign language, because especially before the Vatican reforms, sign language was a big part of the culture within the convent. Because you don't ever speak because you want to; you only speak because you have to. And ideally, you're communicating solely through your sign language.

Basically, any extraneous sensorial experiences are forbidden because you want the thing that's on the forefront of your mind to be your relationship with God and your connection with Him. So that's why you're abiding by the custody of the eyes and you're refraining from any human touch – and there's grand silence and all of these things to bring your focus and attention to God. But yes, we did speak with a couple of different former nuns and listened to their experiences, and they showed us the proper way to walk and all that.

I guess it was quite an experience, seeing that there's a difference between faith and the tradition that they sort of go through...

Qualley: Right, and in particular with Cathleen, there was that part of the world, which is the structure and the discipline, and also the part that's very exciting, which is falling in love for the first time. And I think we both really wanted Cathleen's relationship with God to be like that of your first love – having a crush and feeling excited, and it's like you're talking to your boyfriend.

Betts: By the way, "Dark night of the soul" is the term that Catholics use for extended crises of faith, which is a very extreme linguistic [way of saying] like, "whoa, that's heavy."

I was interested in the idea of taking someone who comes from possibly an agnostic background – instead of someone who had the symbolism and some of this world in their head before they could talk – and why, dramatically, that works for you?

Betts: It posed a few plausibility risks, but the payoff is that her yearning for God and her faith is coming from an absolutely pure place within herself, and so it needed to be somebody with no prior associations to it, to be able to see what her faith is like. And that's why there’s a scene with the girls – where they all say "My mom said one child should be sacrificed..." – and it's generated from the most pure place. And so I thought if you're going to look at the subject of faith, there is a plausibility [because] she would have had to become baptized and sort of become Catholic before she went [to the convent].

You did quite an amazing job [Margaret]. It's not easy to share a scene with Melissa Leo; she's like a giant. And I wonder, how were you able to develop the role to the point where you were on the same emotional level as her?

Qualley: Obviously, Melissa Leo is a wildly talented actress, and it was intimidating to work with her, which I think worked in my favor for our relationship within the story. Not that she was unkind to me; she was very generous and very kind. But she is so revered and I respect her so much that I think that was very helpful for our on-screen dynamic.

This movie sparked a lot of questions because I know nothing about the Catholic Church. Vatican II is a new thing for me. I was wondering, in your research and in developing this film, what did you see in the decision-making? It's a really big question because you can’t really think about what the Pope was thinking about [when it comes to] Vatican II. Because basically, at the time, tradition and modernization were kind of battling it out, and [Vatican II] was sort of a way – through my research at least – for the Church to be accepting and open...

Betts: You have to look at the time period. And this is in America, specifically, and Vatican II is in Europe, so it may not be across-the-board applicable. But I do believe in zeitgeist, and the '60s was a time period of tremendous upheaval. The '60s also found a lot of people seeking out alternative spirituality, like when the Beatles were in India and all that kind of stuff. So Catholicism was just not attractive; like if you're a cradle Catholic, you're born Catholic and you stay Catholic. But if you sort of come to a moment in your life where you want to be connected to something and try some kind of religion, people were not like, "Oh, let me sign up for Catholicism." [laughs]

I think Vatican II was really going back to the liturgy and [was] sort of of a reassessment. Because what happens with these institutions is that everybody tweaks it in their own way. So it's reformed, but they're trying to get back to what the liturgy says. And then in terms of the decision-making, what I found most fascinating is when sexism is so entrenched in an institution that it's almost like the institution's subconscious. Meaning it didn't even occur to them how profoundly offensive and sexist it is to tell people in this patriarchal way that you know how they should live their lives. Even coming from a place of wanting to create reform and wanting to be progressive, it's offensive.

I wanted pick up on that actually, the idea of the old and the new and entrenched sexism. When I saw the film, I thought about how it premiered at Sundance at Park City and what was going on at the time – the fact there was a women's march happening at Park City. And seeing the film and thinking about the zeitgeist, I thought [how] so many of these themes continue to resonate...

Qualley: We both marched at Park City.

Betts: Our movie premiered on the day of the inauguration. I unabashedly say that it has a very strong feminist undertone; that's not by accident. And that seems to be more and more [a] prominent [topic of] conversation, because of Donald Trump. So I do think, in that way, a lot of the [underlying] narrative themes do reflect [that].

Qualley: I feel like his name has become like, "He who shall not be named." Like Voldermort. [laughs]

I really found it prophetic almost that your film was able to predict that sort of recurrence...

Betts: That's so nice! I mean, it comes from a historical event in the '60s, so I don’t know if it's prophetic, but I deeply appreciate that it felt that way. When I was in school, we would always study any work of art in relationship to its time period. Even if you're making a story that takes place in the '60s, it's coming from your head at this particular moment in time, and there's no way that art is not heavily influenced by the period that it comes out. So it'll be so fascinating to see what types of works start to emerge now.

This is a question [for] both of you. When people ask me what Novitiate is about, I say it's about being loved. [But] it's not just about love. It's about something you can touch and something you can feel. So what is Novitiate [to you]?

Betts: It is totally about love, and it's framed by "you're all I can ever want" too. It's kind of like the first time you fall in love. The relationship is about how you can make this person love you back – "What do I have to do to make him love me back? Should I crawl across the floor? Should I whip myself? How am I going to deserve to be loved?" And then when [Cathleen] gets to the point of saying that she seeks something more, she seeks a relationship that’s validating, and that is equal and mutual.

Qualley: That sort of answers for both of us. [laughs]

This film showed how there is a lot of danger in religion itself – not just Catholicism, but all religions. So do you think that this movie also, at least with your character, showed that faith is the most important thing, and that love is the most important thing?

Qualley: Not even necessarily faith, but love and spirituality. I think it definitely illustrates how beautiful spiritually can be, and how terrifying organized religion can be.

Betts: The thing you end up being so theoretically mesmerized by – that I was, in the process of writing – is the religious impulses; this very intimate, personal, internal relationship that you have coming from your heart with God. And then why does this institution have to come in and regulate this? You have this enormous institution that's just there to regulate the most intimate thing inside of yourself, and that's just so weird to me.

Novitiate is now playing in theaters.

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