Based on a true incident, Agnes of God tells of the tragic events surrounding the birth of a baby in a Catholic convent of cloistered nuns.
The mother is Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), a young novice who has murdered the infant at birth by strangling it with the umbilical cord, then concealed her crime by stuffing the baby’s corpse into a trash basket.
Innocent, unworldly, uneducated, Sister Agnes has never read a book or seen a TV show. She didn’t even know she was pregnant. Now she doesn’t remember the delivery, much less the conception, of the dead baby.
Jane Fonda is Doctor Martha Livingston, the court-appointed psychiatrist assigned to determine whether the young nun is sane enough to stand trial for murder.
Anne Bancroft is Mother Miriam Ruth, the mother superior-watchful, protective, and enraged by this intrusion from the outside world.
Norman Jewison has opened up John Pielmeir’s original hit Broadway play from its original set of an office with two chairs and an ashtray to create the strange, antiseptic environment of a cloistered Quebec convent, leading the movie audience on a guided tour from the bell tower to the basement.
Then he contrasts the Spartan serenity of the convent with the bustle of downtown Montreal, to point out the sharp and dramatic differences between religious and secular society.
Sven Nykvist’s gloomy but delicate cinematography wraps the whole thing in an ethereal glow of Canadian winter through which no sun filters.
From the eerily beautiful voices of nuns singing through vespers to soul-searching close-ups of the actresses’ faces, everything possible has been done to transform Agnes of God into a film of substance.
Despite the artistry on display, the central problem that plagued the play remains. John Pielmeier, who has adapted his own drama for the screen, has written a mystery story in which the mystery is never satisfactorily solved.
Where did the baby come from? Who was the father? Was it God? Is Sister Agnes a murderer?
There are no answers to these vital questions, and to make matters more confusing, the film mixes in a lot of mystical allusions to the dark forces in religion and psychoanalysis that don’t quite gel either.
The comparisons to Equus are obvious. The young nun says the baby was divinely inspired. The mother superior pleads with the doctor to keep an open mind about immaculate conceptions.
The shrink, rooted in the soil of logic, not only knows there’s no such thing as a virgin birth but is herself a lapsed Catholic who can never bear children because of an abortion, making it difficult for her to show objectivity.
With the tortured, half-mad young nun at the centre of the triangle, we get the older nun fighting for her spiritual health and the hard-edged doctor fighting for her mental health.
The chemistry between Fonda and Bancroft fairly explodes with kinetic energy. In her desperate need to comprehend the strangeness of the cloistered convent world around her and find her own salvation in the process, Fonda works furiously to snap free from the worldly knowledge that chains her to reality, attack and upheaval simmering beneath the surface of her cool, classical career-girl veneer.
In her desperate need to comprehend the strangeness of the cloistered convent world around her and find her own salvation in the process, Fonda works furiously to snap free from the worldly knowledge that chains her to reality, attack and upheaval simmering beneath the surface of her cool, classical career-girl veneer.
She is really an amazing technician, and Bancroft and Tilly swirl around her with their own confined passion until the screen fills with dramatic intensity.
Even if Agnes of God leaves you restless and troubled, you won’t be bored by the acting. Watching these three superb ladies act together is akin to watching jazz musicians at a jam session.
Doctor Martha Livingston
Mother Miriam Ruth
Dr Livingston’s Mother
Justice Joseph Leveau
Sister David Marie