“Novitiate” is a love story about a girl in a relationship with a guy who just doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to her. It’s a fairly typical tale, except the girl is a 17-year-old nun in training and the guy is God.
In the drama, opening Friday, Cathleen (played by Margaret Qualley) enters the (fictional) convent of the Sisters of Blessed Rose in 1964. She begins her journey toward becoming a nun with a one-year stint as a postulant, getting used to the daily routine of the convent. That’s followed by two years as a novitiate, when she is expected to make herself worthy of the habit. Overseeing her journey is the Reverend Mother (Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who rules her convent with a terrifying power — a power she feels is threatened by the ongoing Second Vatican Council, which is making substantial changes regarding the role of nuns in the Roman Catholic Church.
For writer-director Margaret Betts, “Novitiate” isn’t specifically about nuns — it’s about women in general, both in the 1960s and today.
“It’s about how women love and the way they love,” says Betts, who won the Breakthrough Director award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered. “I am an adult, living in New York, dating, and I see the same thing with a lot of my girlfriends, which is they meet somebody and it’s like, ‘How do I make him or her love me back?’ Myself and all my contemporary girlfriends living in this sophisticated city are putting ourselves in the exact same patterns that these 17-year-olds are in the 1950s and ’60s, locked in a convent. I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about women but I see it much more with women than with men.”
Much of “Novitiate,” Betts’ first feature film, is about Cathleen and her fellow hopefuls trying to figure out their role in a relationship they expect to last a lifetime. There are moments of joy, as when they move from being postulants to novitiates in a “wedding” ceremony that includes long white dresses and wedding rings, symbolizing their traditional role as brides of Christ. Still, Cathleen hungers for a more intimate, real connection (the women of the convent are discouraged from forging friendships so they can better focus on religious life), and tries to earn that intimacy by crawling on the floor, whipping herself and forgoing eating in an effort to be worthy of the God she’s pledged her life to.
“Why would you make it so tortuous and so hard?” Betts says. “You can create this relationship [with Jesus] any way that you want it, but it really isn’t in the female DNA to have this fictitious husband or boyfriend that’s like, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re amazing, you deserve all of my love, you should not suffer for me.’ Instead [the nuns] create this person who’s like, ‘Unless you crawl across the floor 15 times I’m not into it.’ You have two years to make God love you — if you’re good enough.”
In essence, the nuns (with the encouragement of the Church, Betts says) have created a male figure that is emotionally unavailable, the heavenly equivalent of the guy who doesn’t respond to texts. And yet they’re constantly asking what more they can do to earn his love.
“Why aren’t you asking, ‘Is this person deserving of my love?’” Betts says. It’s a question she wants to echo outside of the film’s convent walls and into modern times.