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How the Novitiate director journeyed from the socialite circles of New York to the pews of the Catholic Church

Everyone has a scene from a movie that bobs around in their minds, floating up every now and again at moments both opportune and awry. Sebastian Valmont at the top of the escalator in Cruel Intentions. A teensy Christina Ricci in bathing suit and cap hanging on the edge of the tub in Mermaids. Johnny finding his barefooted balance, beckoning Baby in a forward lunge on a fallen log in Dirty Dancing.

For Maggie Betts, the scene is from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Dawn is breaking, the soundtrack is New Order's Ceremony and the camera dips in and out of focus as the friends dance in the stupor of their youth and stumble in the glint of their ignorance. "That has had such an influence on me," the director said in an interview in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. "There are certain scenes in certain movies by certain directors that just kill me."

Coppola's scene of blissed-out revelry is paralleled in Betts's quietly remarkable first dramatic feature, Novitiate. A troupe of young women has just graduated to the novitiate – an intense period of training and self-reflection before one becomes a nun – and completed a ceremony in which they've married themselves to God. Still dressed in their satin and lace wedding gowns, the girls dance around a crackling bonfire, love-drunk for their beloved Almighty. This scene of mirth is out of joint with the rigidity of the rest of cloistered convent life, and because of its fleetingness, the moment's unbridled joy is all the more intoxicating.

"I was interested in the idea that these girls just got married and they are so happy about it, and they have no idea what they just got involved in," Betts explains. The scene of fireside frolic is "about how unbelievably overwhelmed with happiness and excitement they are about something that is about to turn so problematic."

Where the so problematic lies is tricky to pin down in a film whose characters – and their church – are tangled in all manner of sin. There's the earthly sins of lust and jealousy, of course. Then there's the more insidious transgression of the Catholic Church's deeply imprinted sexism; a sexism so stained in the fabric of the institution that it eventually led to the mass exodus of tens of thousands of its nuns after the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s (also known as Vatican II).

Set in the period leading up to this exodus, Novitiate guides us with one hand through a new believer's spiritual journey (Cathleen, who is played by the spectacular Margaret Qualley), while also tracing the church's contentious decision to, among other things, scrap the need for nuns to wear habits or live within the walls of a convent. The watershed reform of Vatican II was progressive in many ways – it encouraged priests to deliver Mass in English and other vernacular languages, not Latin – but also completely dismissive of its legions of devoted women.

In the film, protagonist Sister Cathleen (played by Margaret Qualley) comes into her sexuality while discovering her nascent faith at the same time.

In some small way, Betts's film makes up for this dismissal. Through closely framed shots rarely higher than the convent walls, the audience spends two hours and three minutes almost entirely in the company of women. Betts offers a rare intimacy with those whose stories have not been adapted to prestige church dramas like her male counterparts (looking at you, Martin Scorsese and Pablo Larrain). Novitiate makes possible a proximity to the lives of girls and women that feels like a period of grace – startling, burnishing.

Betts, who was born in New York to a well-connected family with close ties to George W. Bush (her father is developer Roland W. Betts, owner of Chelsea Piers), transitioned from socialite to filmmaker with her 2011 documentary on the AIDS crisis, The Carrier.

"Coming from a privileged environment and background in NYC, I kind of got locked for a while in a world and life that wasn't really the right fit for me, and I was a bit lost," Betts reflects. "I also had this persistent yearning to make a movie, and spent all my free time on the internet figuring out how people actually made independent films, but still lacked the bravery and self-confidence to fully pursue it."

It was family friend (and former first lady) Laura Bush who nudged Betts, encouraging her to give up the life of the party girl and go into the wider world. This real talk led Betts to sub-Saharan Africa, to work with UNICEF and, in her own words, be "as far away from my bubble as possible." Her confidence as a filmmaker came with that first documentary, as did the realization that she had found what she truly wanted to do.

A short film called Engram followed in 2014, and Novitiate, which Betts researched for four of the six years it took to make, won her the Breakthrough Director award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where the film was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

For a film that is as visually sumptuous as Novitiate, the research process was decidedly textual – which is fitting for a graduate of Princeton University's department of English. "I wrote a 40- or 50-page term paper on nuns. I hired a research assistant for a short time, and we read every single book we could find," says the director, who was not raised religious. Betts had been reading a biography of Mother Teresa when she went to Amazon to look for other books on nuns. It was there that she discovered an entire subgenre of ex-nun memoirs written in the 1980s. These authors had left the church after Vatican II, but their exit was so traumatic that it wasn't until one former nun came forward to tell her story of convent life that the others soon followed. "It's almost like the Bill Cosby effect," Betts says of the strength these women found in numbers to finally speak about the painful experience of feeling pushed out of the Catholic Church.

It is not often that beauty springs from an online comments section, but Novitiate proves an exception. "In the comments section of these various books on Amazon, these ladies were still sounding off about Vatican II," Betts says. "They kept referencing novitiate and Vatican II, novitiate and Vatican II. That is the nun narrative. The main two through lines of the movie were right there in every ex-nun memoir."

The rulings of Vatican II were drawn up in Rome, thousands of miles and an ocean apart from the film's convent and its Sisters of the Blessed Rose. The film's setting remains geographically indeterminate, with few clues as to where exactly in the United States these women are living out their days, whispering their verse, mouthing their devotion. Novitiate was shot in Tennessee, but the most important thing for Betts was that it feel like the convent was "very heartland American Catholicism" – far from the progressive politics of cities with their job opportunities for women and growing secularism. "In a city, a woman could – even in the fifties – be single and go find a job. Whereas in the heartland, you either married the first kid out of high school or you became an old maid or a nun," Betts says.

If you were an unattached Catholic woman in the middle of the 20th century without marriage prospects, getting hitched to God was a solid backup plan. "The sense of isolation that the girls feel makes it better that you don't really know where they are," Betts adds of the film's setting. If the nuns are to never leave the convent for the rest of their lives, then it doesn't matter if they're in Tennessee or Rhode Island. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a sister of the blessed rose is a sister of the blessed rose is a sister of the blessed rose.

With Novitiate, Betts also wanted to explore how her protagonist Cathleen comes into her sexuality while discovering her nascent faith at the same time – an equally erotic pursuit. "I find the language of Catholicism so shockingly erotic that sometimes I'm just like, 'They read this? Out loud?' and then they act like sex is so bad!" Betts says. Audiences are used to hearing about sex and the church, it's just that those stories are horrific and deeply troubling (think Spotlight or Calvary). What's less familiar is a young woman, raised secular, who is horny for God. "You're all I could ever want," whispers Cathleen, raspy-voiced and quaking, in the film's opening scene.

The end of wanting is as impossible a pursuit as perfectibility, but that didn't stop the nuns from trying. Until it did. Novitiate leads us up to the nuns' collective breaking point – just before they are ushered out of the convent by Vatican II and thrust into a world they have little ability to navigate. Betts was intrigued by how "institutions renew or adapt themselves" and wanted to account for the "casualties" that would necessarily come with large shifts in reform.

With Novitiate, Betts offers a rare intimacy with those whose stories have not been adapted to prestige church dramas.

"The idea that the sexism was so entrenched in this patriarchal society that it never occurred to [the Vatican] that the nuns would even be bothered by this – that was really fascinating. The collective unconscious of Catholicism is that sexist?" asks Betts with a bemused laugh.

Betts sums up the insult of Vatican II by reframing the church's reforms: "The sisters can get out of the convent, and they don't need to wear their outfits any more. Like, if you told that to Navy Seals – that they don't need to train any more or wear their uniforms – they'd be like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

While doing her research for the script, Betts spoke with Deborah Larsen, a former nun who wrote a memoir about her time in a convent called The Tulip and the Pope. Larsen, who has lived outside the convent for 40 years, "is not a part of the Catholic Church, but the spirituality is really deep. That connection, that thing, she came to realize had nothing to do with the Catholic Church – it's this incredibly personal thing that is very sustaining."

The film's final few beats, which open up onto vaster questions of spiritual sustenance, seem drawn from their conversations. "You have this faith and you have this relationship that is incredibly intimate and incredibly personal with God. And then you have this institution that is regulating the most personal experience, the most soulful thing inside of you," Betts explains. What of Cathleen? "I think she's a deeply soulful person who is going to need to feel a connection to something larger. That character to me is someone who will seek that profundity in whatever way her whole life."

Novitiate opens on Friday in Toronto and Vancouver, and Nov. 10 in Montreal.