Agnes of God (film)
Agnes of God is a 1985 American neo noir drama mystery film directed by Norman Jewison and starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly. It was written by John Pielmeier, based on his 1979 play of the same name. The plot is about a novice nun who gives birth and insists that the dead child was the result of a virginal conception. A psychiatrist (Fonda) and the mother superior (Bancroft) of the convent clash during the resulting investigation.
|Agnes of God|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Norman Jewison|
|Screenplay by||John Pielmeier|
|Based on||Agnes of God|
by John Pielmeier
|Music by||Georges Delerue|
|Edited by||Antony Gibbs|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Box office||$25.6 million|
Despite generally mixed reviews from critics, the film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Bancroft), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Tilly), and Best Original Score. Tilly also won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
In a Roman Catholic convent near Montreal, Quebec, Canada, during evening prayers, the nuns hear screams coming from the room of Sister Agnes, a young novice. Agnes is found in her room bleeding profusely, and in a wastepaper basket there is a dead baby with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck.
Sister Agnes is suspected of killing the baby, so psychiatrist Martha Livingston is assigned by a court to determine if she is competent to stand trial. In an interview, Agnes claims she doesn't remember being pregnant or giving birth, and shows a lack of understanding of how babies are conceived. Mother Miriam tells Livingston that Agnes is an "innocent" who was kept at home by her mother and knows nothing about the world. She is desperate to keep Agnes naive, and declares that she couldn't have known what pregnancy was or remember the father.
Mother Miriam tells Livingston about the time Agnes stopped eating in the belief she was getting fat, and then exhibited stigmata in her hand that healed itself within a day. Agnes tells Livingston of her friendship with Sister Marie-Paul, the oldest nun, who showed her a "secret place" – a bell tower, which she then shows Livingston. They argue about Agnes' mother and birth, and how much Agnes knows about sex and pregnancy.
Mother Miriam tells Livingston that Agnes must have conceived on January 23, because that is the night Agnes burned her bedsheets confessing they were "stained". While looking around the convent grounds, Livingston comes across a barn. She and a young monsignor argue about whether her lack of faith will leave her unable to treat Agnes with dignity. Livingston learns that Agnes' mother was verbally and sexually abusive, telling her she was a "mistake"; and that Agnes is Mother Miriam's niece.
Livingston receives permission from the court to hypnotize Agnes, but Mother Miriam is strongly against it, believing it will strip her of her innocence. While hypnotized, Agnes admits she gave birth and that another woman in the convent knew she was pregnant, but will not reveal who. Livingston discovers that a workroom in the convent has a concealed staircase to a tunnel leading to the barn. (A historian explains that many old convents have "secret" tunnels, to let the nuns move between buildings during the winter.) Mother Miriam tries to have Livingston removed from the case, but she appeals to the court authorities and is retained.
Livingston obtains a second court order to put Agnes under hypnosis again. Mother Miriam admits that she knew Agnes was pregnant and put the wastebasket in her room, but denies she killed the baby. Under hypnosis, Agnes reveals that on the night Sister Marie-Paul died, she told Agnes she'd seen "Him" from the bell tower and directed Agnes to meet "Him" in the barn. Under questioning, she appears to describe an encounter with a real presence – human or divine. Suddenly, Agnes exhibits stigmata in her hands, and begins bleeding profusely. Agnes declares that God raped her, and that she hates God for it. She admits that Mother Miriam was present when the baby was born, but then left briefly; whereupon Agnes killed the child believing that, like herself, the baby was a "mistake".
Agnes is found not guilty by reason of insanity and returned to the convent where a doctor can "visit" periodically. She tells the judge that she heard "Him" singing beneath her bedroom window for six nights in a row, and then on the seventh night he lay on top of her.
- Jane Fonda as Dr. Martha Livingston
- Anne Bancroft as Mother Miriam Ruth (religious name) | Anna Maria Burchetti (birth name)
- Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes Devereaux
- Anne Pitoniak as Mrs. Livingston, the mother of Martha
- Winston Rekert as Det. Langevin
- Gratien Gélinas as Father Martineau
- Guy Hoffman as Justice Joseph Leveau
- Gabriel Arcand as Monsignor
- Françoise Faucher as Eve LeClaire
- Jacques Tourangeau as Eugene Lyon
- Janine Fluet as Sister Marguerite
- Deborah Grover as Sister Anne
- Michele George as Sister Susanna
- Samantha Langevin as Sister Jeannine
- Jacqueline Blais as Sister David Marie
- Françoise Berd as Sister Thérèse
- Mimi D'Estée as Sister Elizabette
- Rita Tuckett as Sister Sister Geraldine
- Lillian Graham as Sister Madeline Marie
- Norma Dell'Agnese as Sister Geneviève
- Muguette Moreau as Sister Luke
- Janice Bryan as Sister Mary Joseph
- Agnes Middleton as Sister Paul
Agnes of God was greeted with mixed reviews upon release in 1985 and has 43% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 critics. Reviewers praised the performances of Tilly and Bancroft, but felt that there were holes in the plot and movement. Gene Siskel said that it played "with some challenging ideas and some sensationalistic events, but ultimately it fails to earn its right to toy with such subjects." Roger Ebert similarly sided, giving it one star and saying that though it "deals in the basic materials of a criminal investigation (cynical cops, forensic details, courtroom testimony), it has a seriously clouded agenda."
The film was a modest financial success, as it grossed $25,627,836 domestically.