Why a Girl Becomes a Nun in 'Novitiate' at Hamptons Film Fest

Melissa Leo, who grew up spending summers in Springs with her father, Arnold Leo, plays a Mother Superior in "Novitiate."

Since the conceit is not a universal one — how many of us can say we’ve felt the urge to join a nunnery at 17 or at any age? —writer and director Maggie Betts’ feature debut, “Novitiate,” concentrates on deftly illuminating precisely why this is the case.

Set in 1964, when the church spelled a need to reconsider its practices under Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, the story chronicles a young girl, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, daughter of Andi MacDowell), and her undying passion for the divine. Off she goes, from the grasp of her husbandless mother (Julianne Nicholson) into clutches of the merciless Mother Superior, played like a fire-breather by part-time East Hamptonite Melissa Leo, who has a husband for life in God.

Though the head nun is prone to doling out medieval acts of punishments and atonements, such as self-flagellation and crawling around on hands and knees, for the postulates who don’t break under her tyranny, there’s a reward: they get to live out every girl’s fantasy of being a bride for a day. In one of the most disturbing, though beatifically shot scenes, the young novitiates engage in an outrageously polygamous wedding ceremony that involves dressing up in full bridal regalia. 

As per the movie’s closing titles, over 90,000 nuns left their orders during this controversial period for a variety of reasons. Ms. Betts’s piercing convent drama brings to light the top few.

“Novitiate” debuted at Sundance earlier this year and is scheduled for release on Oct. 27. It will be shown again on Monday at Bay Street Street Theater in Sag Harbor at 6:45 p.m.

Maggie Betts before the first screening of her film "Novitiate" at the Hamptons International Film Festival on FridayJackie Pape