Agnes of God (1985) / Drama-Mystery

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, language and some disturbing images
Running Time: 98 min.


Cast: Jane Fonda, Meg TIlly, Anne Bancroft, Gratien Gelinas, Winston Rekert, Anne Pitoniak, Guy Hoffman, Gabriel Arcand
Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: John Pielmeier (adapted from his play)
Review published February 7, 2005

Agnes of God is, at its heart, two mysteries in one.  There is a small mystery, which is actually the main plot of the movie, and then there is a big mystery -- or I should say the biggest of all mysteries.  The small mystery involves whether or not a young nun, Sister Agnes (Tilly, The Big Chill), was responsible for the killing of her newborn baby, which was found strangled and left in a wastepaper basket in her bedroom.  The big mystery is just how Agnes became pregnant to begin with -- was it by a man or by an immaculate conception commissioned by God?

Jane Fonda (On Golden Pond, The China Syndrome) plays Dr. Martha Livingston, a court-appointed psychiatrist out to figure out if Agnes is capable of standing trial for committing such a heinous deed, which proves especially difficult since Agnes does not really understand the fundamental elements of sexuality, cannot understand or remember much about how she became pregnant, how the baby died, or even really whether or not she had a baby to begin with.  With assistance from Mother Miriam (Bancroft, Love Potion No. 9), Martha wrestles with her own problems, mostly stemming from a bad childhood that drove her from the church to becoming an atheist.  As Martha delves deeper, she begins to wonder herself as to whether this is a cut-and-dried case, or if divine forces are at play.

Agnes of God's strength comes from the very strong performances by Meg Tilly and Anne Bancroft in their respective roles, both of whom would receive Academy Award nominations for their performances.  Strangely, Fonda is the star, but the leading actress nomination went to Bancroft, while TIlly received hers in the supporting category, despite having more screen time.  Who can figure these things out??  Neither would win, but TIlly did take home a Golden Globe, and quite deservedly so.

Perhaps the best non-auteur director of his era, Norman Jewison (Rollerball, The Thomas Crown Affair), does another fine job keeping the mystery unfolding as it should, and as in Pielmeier's original play, lets the audience come to its own conclusions as to just what did happen to Sister Agnes.  The film did meet with some controversy, as almost all movies that hold the church in a less-than-favorable light often do, especially with the very uncouth conduct of Mother Miriam, who we see engaging in activities not normally associated with nuns, like smoking and swearing.  The meaning behind Pielmeier's intentions remains ambiguous the whole way through, treading the line between science and faith in a way that confirms and defies explanations in both.

Agnes of God is an often powerful drama and intriguing mystery worth viewing for some interesting food for thought, as well as to see some very fine performances.  Jewison's economical and efficient direction keeps things flowing smoothly, and while it may not be to all tastes given the subject matter, it is just beguiling enough for those interested to smartly entertain for the duration.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo