Film / Agnes of God

Agnes of God is a 1985 American mystery/drama film directed by Norman Jewison, starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly. It's based on the play by author John Pielmeier, which in turn was based on a Real Life case that took place in the New York of The '70s.

The story is about a novice nun from a convent in Montreal, Agnes (Tilly), who gives birth and insists that the dead child was the result of a virgin conception. A court-assigned psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Fonda), and the mother superior of the convent, Mother Miriam Ruth (Bancroft), clash during the resulting investigation, since Martha wants to help Agnes face reality and handle it better but Mother Miriam wants to shield her from a truth that has shattered her; in the meantime, the mentally-challenged and childlike Agnes gives subtle clues about who is actually responsible for the birth (and death) of the child...

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards and two Golden Globes, with Tilly's performance earning her the latter.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Agnes was sexually molested by her mother. Not only that, but according to Mother Miriam ( who is also Agnes's aunt), Agnes has "never been out there. She's never seen a movie or a television show. She's never even read a book." Her mother kept her home almost all the time, until her death when Agnes was brought to the convent.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Martha's dead sister, Marie.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Smoking and cigarettes are a theme in this film. Martha smokes and admits it's a habit; if she finds something better to do, she'll stop smoking. Mother Miriam used to smoke as well (two packs a day, unfiltered) and sneaks one with Martha in the gazebo. It's taken Up to Eleven when Agnes reveals that a cigarette is what her mother used to molest her.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Doctor Martha Livingston is rather upset by the fact that Agnes doesn't seem to know atheism is an option. She often clashes with Mother Miriam over this fact. When asked why she turned from Catholicism, she replies with two reasons that can serve as a Freudian Excuse (although neither is about sex, and Martha states strongly that sex was not the issue.)
  • In Vino Veritas: Not wine, but hypnotism. Agnes is hypnotized twice to see what she remembers. Along the way, she reveals that she hates Brussels sprouts. Cut to Mother Miriam stifling a giggle.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film's ending is relatively upbeat about Agnes' future; the judge thinks it's pretty clear she doesn't know what's going on, and orders her released to the convent where she can be cared for by a visiting doctor. Fade out on her singing in the belfry, surrounded by doves. The play's, not so much. The play has the court declaring that Agnes must be committed to a hospital; "where she stopped singing, and stopped eating; and where she died." Meanwhile, Martha stops smoking and declares she will make her Confession and return to the Catholic faith.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
  • Not So Different: Mother Miriam and Martha share a cigarette and jokingly discuss whether Jesus and the Disciples would do the same, and what the saints would smoke.
    Miriam. And Saint Joan would chew tobacco!!
  • Nuns Are Funny: The ice-skating scene in the movie is endearing.
  • Offing the Offspring: it looks like Agnes did this to her baby...
  • The Ophelia: Agnes fits this trope extremely well. She is rather childlike and naïve. She also constantly speaks of random things that make sense only after being pieced together. It is unclear whether she was born mentally challenged; she says she was "dropped on her head" as a baby. Martha is never sure whether Agnes is really mentally challenged or it's a result of her mother's virtually imprisoning her. She is intelligent enough to remember all the Latin prayers, songs and rituals and seems comfortable with the convent's rules of order.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie not only cuts quite a bit of the dialogue, but adds more characters. (In the play we only have Agnes, Martha and Mother Miriam Ruth.)
  • Pun-Based Title: On Agnus dei.
  • Woman in White: Agnes

I want to believe that she was blessed. And I do miss her. And I hope she's left something; some little part of herself with me. That would be miracle enough... wouldn't it?