Agnes of God (Jewison, 1985)

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Instead of spending your hard earned money on Doubt, I recommend instead you rent Norman Jewison’s film, Agnes of God. This is a time of economic turmoil afterall, while one might ordinarily be able to sacrifice $10 on an average film based on a play that’s somewhat entertaining, I suggest you spend half that money (if not less) on renting a different film that explores the same themes with far more insight and cinematic prowess. Though also based on a play, and similarly dealing with a mystery and THE mystery of organized religion, Agnes of God defies it’s theatrical roots thanks to stunning cinematography that accentuates both the intimacy and alienation religion evokes in the modern world. The film does suffer from some of the same mistakes and problems as the aforementioned film, notably a sort of misguided centering on procedure rather than the “real” issues at hand. Perhaps I am too forgiving, because I am pulled into Agnes’ spell, and raising the questions is enough for me even without answers.

The film is set in Montreal, Quebec, during what I assume is the late 1970s/early 1980s. The film makes a point to emphasize the modernity of the situation to estrange the nuns further from what we know as the real world. It is essential that the audience understands the events, potential miracles of God, under the circumstances of secular life. The film is centered around the mystery of a strangled newborn, whose mother is young Agnes, a novice-nun. It quickly becomes apparent that she is not quite in her right mind, and her understanding of the events are blurred and twisted by her unusual perception of the world around her. Enter state assigned psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda, who seemed to have turned 71 yesterday), to evaluate whether Agnes is responsible for her actions. Everyone from the judge to the mother superior seem to want her to make her evaluation quickly and cleanly, as it’s pointed out that nobody wants to see a nun in prison, no matter what they may have done. This seems to go against her personal set of beliefs, though her own impartiality over the case is often brought up, as her own dealings with Catholicism are darkly tainted, even though she doesn’t like to admit it.

When caught up in procedure and law, the film loses ground, though thankfully these sequences are brief and the film allows the audience to become as entrapped by questions of faith as she does. The mystery is really secondary, though consistently hanging over our heads. The question of why this happened, rather than how becomes far more important as we come to understand the sacrifice of living in a convent, perhaps even more so in a modern world. The film raises the question of modern saints and modern miracles, and the Mother Superior seems resigned to the idea they no longer exist. Much like No Country for Old Men, the film questions the idea that perhaps they never did. That life is as bleak now as it was 200 years ago, but history and perceptions twist and turn along the way. The same as the perception of innocence, a trait that is often used to describe Agnes, which is just as skewed and unfounded as that of miracles and sainthood. The film handles these words and semantics in a light handed way, but it’s important to realise how important they are in dealings of faith. The rules and understandings hang on a thread, on words that no longer are used or have multiple understandings. Meanings are lost with languages, and nothing is as it seems. That doesn’t mean there is no beauty in the world however, but perhaps that is my own objection and problems with religion at work. Do we need miracles to confirm faith? Can’t the miracle of existence, and the spontaneity of non-creation based life be incredible and mystifying. This unveils perhaps the biggest squandered opportunity of the film, and the writers/filmmakers failure to acknowledge the only true miracle of the film.
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I think it all stems back to the relegation of womanhood and the prophesied guilt of female sexuality. It’s not addressed in full, but certainly it’s brought up. The mother superior’s speech about how menstruation isn’t wrong, as well as Agnes’ explaining “good babies” and “bad babies”. The film is centered entirely on women, and their own interactions with the church and life. The issue of the mortal body as well becomes an obvious issue, and it’s really one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catholic faith. The idea of stigmata, virgin birth, the burning heart, fasting, mutiliation and suffering are so beyond my conception of spirituality that I cannot help being taken in by their meaning and implication. The real questions and issues became especially apparent for me while reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, and the story an Algonquin Saint, Catherine Tekakwitha, and her interpretation of the impermanence and physical sacrifice of the body. Her extremes really opened my eyes (and in a way, soul) to the real implications of faith in the Bible. I was not repulsed though certainly puzzled, and my reaction is similar in the case of Agnes of God. Like Cohen’s work, it seems especially concerned with the mortal body in context of female sexuality. The inclusion of apparent stigmata complicates the film even more, creating even more ambiguity than before. There is perhaps a sort of psychosis involved, a grand reflection of the mind and heart on the body but the questions are left unanswered. Even before her pregnancy, Agnes is clearly obsessed with the nature of her body, claming to being too fat for heaven and God. The Mother Superior sees it as a moment of vanity, and a misunderstanding of the scriptures at first, but there is something more at work. Agnes declares “suffering is beautiful”, a line that sticks with me above all others. The line is so perplexing and… for lack of a better word, innocent. It sums up my understanding of the “beautiful” aspects of religion, as well as the ones that continue to obsess me. I don’t see myself ever subscribing to any faith, at least nothing organized, but I find the motifs of Catholicism especially are so in tune with my daily obsessions and ponderings. I treat them less as an issue of spiritual faith, but psychological and moral. I wonder if I’ll ever truly understand the meaning of life, or more simply, the role of blood. Something about blood is just so occupying and pervading. If ever I could be so obsessed and troubled by something intimate, it’s blood; all it’s implications and interpreted meanings just boggle my mind. It has me under hypnosis, blood is life, but it is so impermanent and it has no mind or will.

I feel like I’ve come to no real conclusions in terms of Agnes of God, only that it perplexes me in the same way most religion does. The film raises more questions than it answers, this is true, but isn’t that the very nature of religion, theology and morality? It’s never a world of black and white, and even things we have complete faith in are subject to the uncertainty of humanity. Even if God exists, the subject of free wills alienates us from it (I don’t like the idea that God would be a he). We are essentially lost in a sea of nothing, only able to connect with each other, and even then we cannot help making mistakes and failing even those we love. Some argue that God is love, and Agnes argues that she loves everyone. Did she love her child? It doesn’t seem so, the reasons are cryptic and deeply entranced in great psychological suffering. Livinstone’s own trauma’s, though hardly as extreme as Agnes’, do reveal a common bond between us as her own pain prevents her from connecting to others, just as Agnes’ prevents her from connecting to reality. Her own evolution as a human being places her in the role of a mother, and one wonders if God could ever really be a father. We all have issues with the idea of motherhood (even the word itself) and the film, briefly touches on these complicated familial roles. Religion itself seems to rob womanhood of true motherhood, as we are a) all born as sinners and b) the only non-sinful birth, Jesus, is devoid of all female sexuality because of Mary’s virginity. I don’t think the film goes to blame religion for the uncertainty and sinful associations people have with motherhood, but it certainly raises the question. The idea, at the very least, weighs heavily on Agnes’ mind who believes she is wrong, she is a mistake and so is her child. Her naivety is troubling, both inspiring and frightening, and to those who are fast to judge those who are faithful though characters like the Mother Superior, there is presented the idea of how important right state of mind, and morality come into play. None of the characters are perfect, and even in judgement they are not judged by the lens of the character. They are allowed to be human, ugly and beautiful all at once… they’re all suffering, but not in the way Agnes understands the concept. Humanity is suffering, and it unfortunately becomes a matter of having faith… though, I’m hardly suggesting it has to be faith in a God or religion. Just some kind of acceptance and belief in ones self, or some possibility, or some other person.
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9 responses to “Agnes of God (Jewison, 1985)

  1. wow, there is alot to think about here. mainly i’m reallly interested in watching the film. i tend to obsess over religion and the questions posed therein, even though, like you, i don’t see myself ever subscribing to any organized faith. i’ll have to check this out.

  2. What a great post and I love that last screen cap.

    I rarely connect with films that are so steeped in religion, but I love this film. I think its because it deals with women’s roles and women’s everyday existence within religion that appeals to me. It’s not so “preachy” or awash in situations that only a follower of the religion could know or appreciate such significance. I can understand the characters as themselves and see their way of thinking, and it just happens to involve their faith.
    I’ll have to watch it again now.

  3. Thank you 🙂

    I was surprised at how good and apparently underrated this film is, it seemed it was panned or ignored at the time. I’m usually quite interested in films about religion, despite not being religious myself… it’s the ones about women I find the most fascinating though. This is among the best, because as you say, we are able to believe and understand characters as human beings as well as faithful Christians. It’s a film more people should seek out.

  4. I saw this a couple of times around the same time in life I was watching “The Name of the Rose” a lot (loved the atmosphere; discovered the novel later), and also I was aware somehow of Meg Tilly and that “Valmont” was her consolation for having to pass up Constanza in “Amadeus” because of a ski injury or something.–

    Anyway, “Agnes of God” had snow and Meg Tilly, so I enjoyed it a good bit! But I don’t think I’d like it so much now; maybe it’d feel too much like “Jagged Edge” or something . . . .

    Then again, I’d really like to see “Jagged Edge” again! — Wasn’t Meg Tilly in “Psycho 3” as a demented nun or something? Can’t remember the plot, but I think she stars in it.

  5. So many references, I have seen The Name of the Rose, the others are lost on me. She is in one of the Psycho sequels though, so you’re probably right. Is the Jagged Edge worth seeing?

  6. I can’t remember! –When I was a kid I watched it on Cinemax and my older cousin made memorably lurid comments about Glenn Close’s predictament in that film (Jagged Edge).

    I only watched it once all the way through, and I have this notion that the opening sequence was the killer in some kind of S&M bodysuit committing the murder, but maybe that’s another film or I just dreamed it up! (it takes place in a house on a stormy beach, if I’m right).

    But for a couple of notorious reasons, you might be interested in watching it sometime. Like “Agnes of God”, it has a courtroom whodunnit aspect to it.

    From “Agnes” what I think I remember best is Fonda and Bancroft sharing cigarettes. I think I’d like it better if it were a truly ambiguous film, like a Tarkovsky story or something. Being rather mystical in my aesthetic tastes, I think I’d really rather have poor Agnes immaculately preggers or something! . . .

  7. Pingback: 2008 in Review « House of Mirth and Movies

  8. I’m not sure if I’d like the Jagged Edge, I might give it a shot sometimes.

    I do understand what you mean about Agnes of God, though I think it works on it’s own. I think it works beautifully to explore the subjectivity of existence, and though there is a rational explanatation for her predicament, as far as Agnes is consider, it was immaculate conception. She clearly is psychologically unsound, but there is a sweetness and an “innocence”, that almost makes you want to believe her, and I can’t entirely blame the Mother Superior to holding onto her for the idea of modern miracles.

    I need to see more Tarkovsky :/ Only one under my belt so far.

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