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Film / Agnes of God

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Agnes of God is a 1985 American mystery/drama film directed by Norman Jewison and starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly. It is based on the 1979 play of the same name by John Pielmeier, which was based in turn on the Real Life case of Sr. Maureen Murphy that took place in New York during The '70s.

The story is about Agnes (Tilly), a novice nun from a convent in Montreal, 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 convent's mother superior, 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 offers subtle clues regarding 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 for Best Supporting Actress.

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.
  • Based on a True Story: Sister Maureen Murphy, a Montessori teacher from the Sisters of St. Joseph, was acquitted of all charges in the death of her infant son in 1977. It is possible she had had a fling (or been raped) at a teachers' conference she had attended nine months prior. Like Agnes, she never acknowledged that she had been pregnant or given birth. Many details were likely kept from the public for privacy's sake, including facts collected by police and any psychiatric counseling she may have had.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Agnes is committed back to the care of her convent, as the judges find she is mentally incapable of standing trial. But Agnes has been traumatized by her ordeal - both the pregnancy and the death of her baby - and has suffered a complete break from reality. Both Martha and Mother Miriam end up haunted by what they've learned.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Martha's dead sister, Marie.
  • Did the Research: Enough to explain a few Catholic beliefs that are often misinterpreted even by Catholics themselves. Miriam says "A miracle is an event without an explanation," giving her (and, by implication, others) the "opportunity to believe, the choice to believe." When Martha says "So you're saying God did it?" Miriam corrects her: "I'm saying God permitted it."
  • 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: The origin of Agnes' baby.
  • Nuns Are Funny: The ice-skating scene in the movie is endearing.
  • Offing the Offspring: it looks like Agnes did this to her baby...
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Miriam has a moment of this in the barn scene. She and Agnes are supposed to be Canadians of Italian descent,note  but during Miriam's argument with Martha about what's wrong with the Catholic Church, Anne Bancroft slips into a rough Irish accent that sounds a lot more like her Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker.
  • 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. The movie ends with Agnes, during the judges' ruling, trying to explain how she met the baby's father, including a song he sang to her as he had sex with her:note : either she's telling the exact truth, or she has had a complete break with reality.
  • 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 (Lamb of God).
  • The Unreveal: We never find out who the father of Agnes' baby was, and if the child was a product of rape, seduction, or conceived by an angel as Agnes believes.

"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?"
Dr. Martha Livingston