Ah, the 80s: Agnes of God (1985) Review
Director: Norman Jewison
Cast: Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilly, Winston Rekert
I’m not really sure I understood this movie. The plot is easy enough to follow, it’s the message itself that’s maddeningly unclear.
Agnes of God, based on a play by John Pielmeier (who also wrote the film’s script), opens up at a secluded Roman Catholic convent outside of Montreal. A shattering scream breaks the silence of the night, and the nuns rush to the room of young Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), who’s lying unconscious on the floor and bleeding uncontrollably. After she’s taken to the hospital, the elderly Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft) discovers a newborn baby in the wastebasket in Agnes’ room, strangled to death.
The courts seem very iffy about sending a nun to prison, so they send agnostic psychiatrist Martha Livingstone (Jane Fonda) to interview the child-like Agnes to determine whether or not she’s insane. Mother Miriam disapproves of Martha because of her profession but cooperates with her just the same. While Martha is reluctant to take Agnes’ case due to the horrific nature of the crime, once she starts actually talking to the young nun, she goes out of her way to not only try to help her, but to also prove that somebody else (either one of the nuns or possibly a man who managed to sneak in) may have, in fact, been responsible for the crime.
This leads to many scenes we’ve come to expect in a police procedural, including the heroine interrogating uncooperative witnesses, looking over crime scene photos, and getting information out of cynical police officials (Martha seems to be intimate with one – they even kiss on the lips a few times – although nothing is ever made of that). Questions about the father begin to arise, and since Agnes can’t remember ever having sex (much less being pregnant), it’s assumed that maybe she was immaculately conceived.
There are theories offered about why Agnes is not in her right frame of mind, ranging from her being sexually abused by her mother to her being cut off from the rest of the world by spending her days in the convent (“She’s never seen a movie or a TV show,” Mother Miriam informs Livingstone). Later, it’s discovered that a secret tunnel leads from the convent to a nearby barn. Did someone sneak in that way and rape Agnes? Who else knew about the secret passage? It doesn’t matter, because in the end, the tunnel is really nothing more than a red herring (Or is it? I really can’t be sure).
So how did Agnes get pregnant? Did she kill her child? If she’s not responsible for her actions, then who is? Is the father human, or was the child immaculately conceived? If the former, how did the father find out about Agnes if she never leaves the convent? If the latter, then why would God plant His seed in a woman He must have known was going to kill the child as soon as it was born? Was it just to bring scandal to the Catholic Church?
What’s frustrating about this movie is that the only thing we know for sure in the end is whether or not Agnes killed the baby. The stigmata comes into play during the movie’s overblown climax, but it doesn’t explain anything, and it feels too much like a bizarre contrivance than some divine revelation. I appreciate ambiguity as much as the next film snob, but only when it gets you to think about the story’s meaning. The problem with Agnes of God is that I can’t be sure what I’m supposed to take away from it. If the movie had a message, it was completely lost on me.
Needless to say, I didn’t much like this movie, but there are many things about it that I do admire. I really love the location work (the movie was filmed mostly at the former Rockwood Academy at Rockwood, Ontario), and Sven Nykvist’s elegant cinematography makes excellent use of the locales. Norman Jewison directs the movie with unquestionable skill, and the performances are, for the most part anyway, excellent across the board.
Bancroft is easily the film’s highlight as the crusty and worldly Mother Miriam, and in the film’s best scene, she shares a cigarette with Martha in a pavilion as they both talk about what sort of tobacco Jesus and the saints might have smoked if it were popular in their time. There’s a scene that comes just before that I also liked, where Mother Miriam gives her response to Livingstone’s reasons for leaving the church.
Tilly is effective in the quieter scenes she shares with Fonda, but her performance becomes almost embarrassingly theatrical during the scenes where she’s hypnotized and made to remember what happened that night. Fonda is commanding as the leading lady, but the movie seems to struggle with her character, starting with that random cop she keeps kissing to her one visit with her mother at a nursing home that doesn’t really add anything to her character, or the movie for that matter. She’s also given some of the film’s hokiest lines. When Mother Miriam says that Agnes belongs to God, she responds with, “And I plan to take her away from Him.” It’s pretty groan-inducing.
There’s enough about Agnes of God for it to hold your attention and get you to curious to see where it’s going to go, but the movie winds up going all over the place, and in the end, it leaves you with your hand closing on air. I was hoping for a movie that would challenge me and get me to ask thoughtful questions about religion and the nature of God, or maybe a parable about how the usually conflicting ideas of reason and faith can, in fact, work together in the service of a greater cause. Maybe that’s what the filmmakers wanted too (the material was certainly there), but the problem is that they seem unsure of the questions they want to ask us.
I really wanted to like Agnes of God. I’ve even seen the movie twice in hopes of picking up on something I may have missed the first time through. Unfortunately, the second time was even more frustrating than the first. Maybe a far more astute movie goer than myself can pick up on what the filmmakers were going for here, and if so, I would love to hear it. Agnes of God is never a boring movie, but in my mind, it’s not a very good one either. It’s a morality tale that leaves you wondering what on earth the moral of the story is supposed to be.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material and language
Final Grade: ** (out of ****)