Agnes of God is a curious film – part neo-noir mystery, part character study, and part religious contemplation. The screenplay is written by John Pielmeier and based on his 1979 play of the same name, which revolves around three women. The first is the titular Agnes, played here by Meg Tilly, a young nun in a Quebec convent who gives birth to a boy and claims that he is the result of an immaculate conception. Her situation is complicated by the child’s almost immediate death, which sends a ripple through her convent, headed by Mother Maria Ruth, the second main character, played by Anne Bancroft. A court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Martha Livingston, is instructed to look into the case and to deduce what happened to the child, as well as the identity of the father. What ensues basically plays as a three-hander, and largely unfolds as a series of conversations between the three women about the experience of religion, identity and femininity. The tone of the film is largely philosophical, so there’s not a great deal of forensic investigation into the father of the child or the events of his death. Instead, the more typical focus on identifying paternity, or a transcendental signifier, is displaced in favour of a sequence of overlaps and slippages between the three women’s lives.
While Agnes of God may be directed by Norman Jewison, it gains its unique temperament from the contributions of Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer responsible for lighting and colouring many of Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic films. In Nvkvist’s hands, the narrative takes on a moody, melancholic, burnished feel – you sense a turning of the tides, a changing of the seasons, and the radical promise of the 60s starting to enter its autumnal phase. Martha keeps a copy of Irwin Shaw’s Acceptable Losses on her mantelpiece, and the film often seems to contemplate how much of the Boomer project can be acceptably sacrificed back to traditional values, or offered up as expiation in the face of an impending neoconservative world order. There’s more than a touch here of The Exorcist, not just in the religious backdrop, or the histrionic hypnosis scenes, but in the anxiety about the counterculture fading into oblivion as the 70s and 80s arrive, as the rebel generaton glimpse middle-aged desuetude.
Most of that anxiety revolves around Fonda, an emblem of liberation, and her character, Dr. Livingston, a trailblazer of the dark continent of female sexuality. Echoes of Klute abound here, especially in our glimpses of Martha’s apartment, which feels like a time capsule from the New Hollywood era – dim lights, big windows, and a vague sense of omnipresent surveillance that Jewison channels into Martha’s continuous recourse to her answering machine. Martha is pointedly single, doesn’t want to get married, at least at this moment, can’t have children, had an abortion for her ex-husband, and is unrecognisable to her own mother, who is living with dementia in a nursing home. She is also, quite openly, menopausal, and the “change” suffuses every corner of the film with a strange and emergent melancholy.
Agnes’ story is powerful on her own terms, but she resonates most as a meeting point between Martha and Maria, the two older women, both of whom become surrogate mothers to her in different ways. We learn that Maria was married for twenty-three years, and has both children and grandchildren, but is now estranged from her nuclear family, which didn’t work out for her. In fact, Agnes turns out to be the daughter of Maria’s wayward sister, and her last residual connection to the married life she once enjoyed. Likewise, we learn that Martha’s sister, who passed away some years before, was also a nun, meaning that she feels a particular protectiveness for Agnes as well. Caught between these two women, Agnes often feels like a symbol of 80s femininity, drawn to the old ways represented by the nunnery, but unable to discard the lessons of her Boomer forebears either. She’s easily the most devout character in the film, but her devotion often inflects her through key flashpoints in second wave feminist discourse, as when she advocates a kind of free love in the name of her religion, or stops eating because she is concerned that she might be too overweight to get into heaven.
For all Agnes’ power, however, she’s largely a conduit for the more interesting relationship between Martha and Maria, and between Fonda and Bancroft. If Martha is a liberated character dealing with her legacy, then Maria is both a pre-liberated and post-liberated character. She’s not comfortable with Martha’s openness about sexuality, but she was also more comfortable about it in the past, before retreating from her everyday life into the comforts of the church. Martha thus presages a neoconservatism capable of undoing the Boomer project, and suffuses the film with an abstract temporality, a fusion of present and past that often recalls the Spanish convent of Vertigo. On the one hand, this Quebec convent is retrojected ever more further into the European past, leading one character to observe that “they are a very rare and special people, those sisters, only a few of them left in this modern world.” On the other hand, Agnes clings to cigarettes, and to lighting cigarettes for other women, as her last vestige of liberation, while Bancroft’s iconic role in The Graduate, as beacon from one generation to the next, also complicates her character’s conservatism here.
Rather than playing as a thriller per se, Agnes of God makes most sense as an autumnal meditation on women living between the liberation of the Boomer generation, and the return to traditional values as a conscious “choice” against the third wave feminism that was starting to enter popular discourse from the mid 80s onwards. The film raises these questions, but doesn’t resolve them, and indeed leans into their contradictions, most notably in the final twist that Maria killed the child to protect the sanctity of Agnes and the convent, thereby performing an abortion in the name of her religion. It feels right that this would kick off Fonda’s final suite of films before her fifteen-year hiatus too, since you feel her restlessness in the character here, her longing to find new voice and expression for the world she had helped to bring into creation, a world that feels precarious by the time Agnes of God finishes.