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Agnes of God (1985) – DVD Review


Written by John Pielmeier, based on his own play
Directed by Norman Jewison
Starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly


  • Theatrical trailers

Released by: Sony Pictures
Region: 1
Rating: R, viewers be advised–contains themes of child abuse
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Rent it, at least.

Agnes of God begins with a mystery: a novice nun has given birth to a child, but cannot remember ever being pregnant, much less identify the father or explain how the child died. A court-reported psychiatrist must evaluate Agnes’ (Tilly) ability to stand trial, but she has issues of her own. The working out of the mystery is an interesting look at convent life, “modern” psychiatry, and the nature of miracles.

Agnes of God poses several interesting questions. Is there such a thing as a miracle? Is covering part of the truth ever allowable? Where is the line between “mystic” and “lunatic”? Is psychiatry as faith-based as religion? These questions are posed sensitively and with respect, both to the atheist psychiatrist and to the Catholics in the convent, even if both sides can never quite meet in the middle. By the end of the plot, viewers are often left to make up their own mind about what they have seen–and what really happened to Agnes.

The plot also has a few weaknesses, alas. Without giving too much away, there are some coincidences of relationships that are a bit too convenient, and a few other plot issues are left hanging (and not in an interesting or provocative way as some other questions remain unanswered). In a society that doesn’t want mystics, it would have been more interesting to have done more with Agnes’ character.

Luckily, the filming is so beautifully done that you don’t quite mind the problems with the plot. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is amazing, especially towards the end, when Agnes relates what happened to her in the barn. Watch for how light and shadow play an almost constant role in framing the characters, especially Agnes. The soundtrack is strong enough to support the convoluted and emotional story without overpowering the acting or distracting from the staging.

The evocative filming dovetails nicely with the solid acting jobs done by the main stars. Fonda as the chain-smoking doctor is splendid–tough as nails but with a soft spot for Agnes she can’t quite explain. Bancroft as the Mother Superiour is wise, secretive, and, most importantly, human. Finally, Tilly as the touched Agnes is just wonderful, how her eyes never quite look completely at you, just toward you, as if she’s living somewhere you cannot be and seeing things you cannot see. Even her voice serves her in this role, as she sings with the voice of an angel and speaks with the voice of a child and of a woman, by turns.

In short, Agnes of God is a solid piece of filmmaking that doesn’t quite satisfy in a conventional way, but maybe that is not necessarily a bad thing. You won’t get any answers here, and you are ultimately asked to take some things on faith or not at all. Pay special attention to the scene where Bancroft and Fonda share a cigarette and discuss what the saints would have smoked, had tobacco been a part of the early Christian world–it’s hysterical. No matter you final views of the unfortunate battle between science and faith, you’ll find things to think about in Agnes of God.