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AGNES OF GOD (1985)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilly
Nominated for three Academy Awards:
Best Actress, Anne Bancroft
Best Supporting Actress, Meg Tilly
Best Original Score
A bloodcurdling scream is heard from within a small, isolated convent a few miles outside of Montreal, Quebec. The several nuns who live in the building run to the room where the screams are coming from, and there they find young Sister Agnes, passed out on the floor and drenched in blood. As she is rushed off to the hospital, Sister Miriam Ruth investigates the room, and there she discovers the lifeless body of a small infant child. That is how this film, based on a 1982 play by John Pielmeier (who also wrote the screenplay for the film), begins. The film was directed by Norman Jewinson (best known for such films as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING), and does a fine job at directing this mystery of faith and religion seen through the eyes of a cynical investigator sent in to interview the young Sister who gave birth to a baby nobody knew she was carrying, and who possibly strangled that baby to death.
Jane Fonda plays Dr. Martha Livingston, a career oriented woman who decided to focus in on her profession as a psychiatrist then having a family of her own. She was raised a Catholic, but now has absolutely no faith in the church or in God due to several tragedies that have plagued her life (the death of a sister who died in a convent, the illness of a mother who canít remember who her own daughter is). When she is assigned to investigate the case of Sister Agnes by the courts, she believes the case has a lot more to it then simply a nun trying to cover up a scandal in the church. She goes to the convent, where she is greeted by Sister Miriam (Bancroft), who is headstrong and tough, and makes it clear she has absolutely no belief in the world of psychology and fears that Martha is there to take Agnes away from God and corrupt her mind. Martha meets with Agnes (Tilly), and instantly believes that she is a highly naive and frightened woman who has the mind of the child and is just as innocent (Miriam explains that Agnes has never even watched a television program or ventured outside the grounds of the convent, and is totally oblivious to the world around her). Agnes carries a lot guilt that has been put on her through years of systematic abuse from her now deceased mother. Agnes had to endure humiliation, both mentally and physically, and when her mother died she came to the convent where she believed God personally spoke to her and punishes her for being a bad person (being overweight for example is something God would despise, and Agnes decides to stop eating all together in the past explained by Miriam). Itís obvious to Martha that Agnes has been through some serious abuse, and Sister Miriam only feeds her ignorance to the world around her to her more and more. She shelters the young girl and protects her from any harm, but even begins to wonder if the girl is truly blessed when she discovers stigmata marks on her hands one afternoon (explained in a flashback sequence). Martha doesnít believe the girl is a miracle of God, but a victim of his existence. She probes into the death of the baby and who the father might be, but Agnes has totally forgotten about the birth and refuses to believe she even had a child. As Martha begins to investigate further and further, unsettling truths are ultimately revealed about Agnes pregnancy and even Miriam herself.
The film is emotionally tense one, as one revelation opens up to another. The questions the film asks is if faith and religion lie within psychology, and that those who believe in a greater power are nothing but pawns in a belief that the good are holy and the bad are wicked, and that good triumphs over evil only if it rejects the possibility that they could ever experience evil themselves. The performances by Bancroft and Tilly are extremely gripping ones, with Bancroft having some sharp dialogue which is delivered with great strength and yet incredible subtlety, though she can experience anger and moments where her intolerance is notable and to a degree understood. Tilly is amazing in her role and brings a lot of emotional depth to her fragile character. Jane Fonda is effective, this being her first film in four years after the wild success of 1981ís ON GOLDEN POND. Though she does do a good job, her character suffers of too much excess that feels like it was put to explain her motivations for discovering the truth. Though her motivations are justified, I think the film is scared the audience may not feel her determination and thus spreads everything a little thick.
My only major problem with the film is during the final climax with Tillyís pregnancy ultimately being explained. I think that it doesnít bother allowing the audience to have an open mind, and instead insists that what it wasnít preaching beforehand exists. It feels like an unintentional cop out but a cop out nonetheless. I didnít particularly want a hardcore answer, but didnít want to be cornered into one either. I wanted to be left with open possibilities, and the mental health of Tilly is never fully developed.
But all in all, it is emotionally satisfying and does make for a good little mystery that revolves around its characters instead of the characters becoming overcome by the mystery. The film was, in my opinion, harshly criticized when it was released. Though I can understand a lot of criticsí problems, I think they let to much overpower their judgment. To me, this was an intriguing film with a few holes in the plot here and there, but still a satisfying experience.
My Grade: B