Mark Levine + courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Maggie Betts’s eagerly awaited debut feature, Novitiate, won adulation at Sundance last winter and is finally reaching theaters this fall; she says she stumbled on the idea for it several years ago. Betts, daughter of film producer, real estate developer, and investor Roland W. Betts, who has been one of former president George W. Bush’s best friends since college, spent several years immersed in the struggle against AIDS in Africa, participating in the effort that the Bush family has made its great humanitarian legacy. One day, having run out of reading material for her latest transcontinental commute, she picked up a biography of Mother Teresa in an airport. The way the legendary nun (now sainted) was quoted in letters describing her marriage to God as a torturous love relationship brought Betts up short. “It made me wonder how much of love is a projection,” the director says; the experience struck her as so similar to first love as we universally experience it. She started reading nuns’ memoirs, and a pattern emerged: They wrote about their novitiate, the trial period prior to becoming a nun, as an ecstatic, life-changing experience, “when they’re just young girls, and it’s the first time they’ve been in love, and it’s so overwhelming to them.”
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“I thought that nuns could tell us a lot about how we love,” Betts says, “and why we make love so hard on ourselves. The whole concept of the novitiate as being a training program, where you have to put yourself through the wringer to earn your man’s love, is something you see in the way we ask ourselves, ‘Am I good enough for this person to love me back? Should I lose 20 pounds? Should I have a cooler job?’ It’s like, ‘I don’t deserve love just for being me, so if I do this and that, will it make the person love me?’ It represents the beautiful side of when you’re young and in love for the first time, and then all the insecurity and self-punishment that come with it, too.”
With a vibrant cast that includes Dianna Agron and Morgan Saylor, with a luminous Margaret Qualley front and center, Betts brings a humanistic, nonjudgmental eye to convent life in the early 1960s, when the Vatican II reforms were sweeping through the Catholic Church’s religious orders. These changes are met as something of a death sentence by the convent’s reverend mother— Melissa Leo in a jaw-dropping performance as a faithful nun who sees her life’s work being nullified. It all makes for an unmistakably original drama by a director to be watched closely.
This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.
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