Norman Jewison’s Agnes of God (1985) was a profound work of bravery in the religiously-obsessed Hollywood of the 1980’s. The director of The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story had alarmed studio executives when he came to Columbia Pictures in 1985 with a proposal for his next film: an adaptation of a Broadway play about a murderous nun. It was not the first time he had asked to adapt a religiously-themed play to the big screen; his Fiddler on the Roof (1971) was a masterfully-directed story about a threatened Jewish family. But Jewison, a Catholic, had not yet made a successful film with similar insights into Christianity. With Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) he had achieved a musical that was glossy and exuberant, but also astonishingly banal and impersonal—given the director’s Catholic roots. Agnes of God allowed Jewison to go back and try again.
In his 2005 autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, Jewison devoted individual chapters to each of the films he made in his 40-year career, carefully explaining how they were made and how he was able to get studio executives to greenlight them. It was particularly challenging for him to convince Columbia president Guy McElwaine to greenlight a project as fundamentally disturbing as Agnes of God: where was the dramatic appeal? Could the story be as provocative on the big screen as it was on the stage? What could audiences possibly get out of the experience? Adamant that he could film a successful adaptation of the play, Jewison responded that the film would have the potential to “test our ability to believe in miracles.” That did the trick.
Other great filmmakers had made fantastic pictures about nuns before, particularly Michael Powell with Black Narcissus (1947) and Fred Zinnemann with The Nun’s Story (1959). But as Jewison explains in his autobiography, he had another plan entirely in developing an approach to the subject matter. “I think most people,” the director wrote, “regardless of their religion, regardless of logic, want to believe in something outside of their daily lives. Outside of themselves. Agnes of God gave me the opportunity to explore that timeless human conflict between believing what we can see, and believing what we can’t see or experience. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that the world is in dire need of angels.”
Nevertheless, Jewison realized that John Pielmeier’s play, which had starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Ashley on Broadway, would require a major do-over if it was going to make a successful transition to the screen. To do this, Jewison decided to recast the whole show: Ashley was replaced with Jane Fonda, and Page was replaced with Anne Bancroft—after Bancroft convinced that Jewison that she was no longer a sexy Mrs. Robinson and was now capable of playing older, harder characters. And Jewison armed himself with industry professionals: Pielmeier, whose screenplay was adapted from his own play; Georges Delarue, who composed an eerie musical score; and Bergman veteran Sven Nykvist, whose cinematography sets up the mysterious visual atmosphere almost immediately, as the movie opens with a shot of a chapel sitting peacefully out in the woodsy Canadian distance. In a haunting title sequence, a group of nuns roam around a crucifix, praying softly—before the lights go out and a scream is heard in the night. Nuns run frantically up stairs, a door is burst open, and there is a brief glimpse of someone’s hands wrapped in a bedsheet. Covered in blood.
A serious crime has been committed. One of the nuns, Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), has strangled a newborn baby and has stuffed it into a wastebasket. The church calls for justice, Sister Agnes won’t talk, and Dr. Livingston (Jane Fonda), a psychiatrist, is appointed by the court to investigate. At first she protests, but the court is insistent: “They want a woman.” Nobody wants the case to go to trial or for Sister Agnes to go to jail, so Livingston is given a simple task: find out who fathered Agnes’ baby, and find out why she strangled it to death. On the first day she visits the convent, she is greeted by a smiling Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft), who allows Livingston to call her "Sister" because the term "Mother" “brings up the most unpleasant connotations in this day and age.” It is only a matter of seconds before the Mother Superior suddenly breaks character, warning Livingston not to corrupt Sister Agnes with her unpopular psychiatric methods. “I know what you are,” she hisses. “I don’t want that mind cut open.”
I’ve seen Agnes of God twice now, and on both viewings I’ve found that the movie works best during scenes of quiet, unsettling ambiguity. Consider the scene in which Livingston first meets Sister Agnes, who—like a child—always smiles, always reacts merrily to everyday situations, always claims innocence to occurrences that seem to be her fault. She is maddeningly unhelpful when Livingston inquires about the murdered baby, which Sister Agnes claims ignorance to: “I never saw the baby, so I can’t talk about the baby, because... I don’t believe in the baby.” The performance by Meg Tilly, which netted the film one of two richly-deserved Oscar nominations (the other for Bancroft), is one of the film’s strongest assets. Cleverly masking the dark secrets of the Sister Agnes character, Tilly finds a way of her own to make Jewison’s nightmare of depraved piety become a reality.
Another important factor in the movie’s narrative is the side-story of the character of Dr. Livingston, played by Jane Fonda as an atheist whose involvement with the case shines a light on her recent loss of faith, among other skeletons in her closet. Her personal life is in disarray, and we get the obligatory sequence of the lonely heroine going home alone on the night of her birthday, with nothing left to do except play out the endless string of messages on her answering machine. We learn that she once had a sister who became a nun and later died in a convent, and this is a predominant theme in the film: the consequences that arise when a family gives up one of its own to the church. There is a scene towards the end of the film in which Fonda watches another girl being inducted into the church as a nun, hugging her family goodbye.
What makes Agnes of God so remarkable is how it sets up a system in which the Catholic Church has both rewarded and ruined the families of all three of these women. The Mother Superior was married for 23 years, and admits that “my children won’t even see me anymore. That’s their revenge. I think they tell their friends that I’ve passed on.” The Fonda character had a falling out with her Catholic parents in the wake of a teenage abortion, and her senile mother now spends her days watching Spider-Man cartoons at a local nursing home. Sister Agnes, it is revealed, is the Mother Superior’s niece, rescued from an alcoholic mother who molested her as a child. She seems to have found salvation in the church, but her murdering of her baby may suggest otherwise.
Of course, the scenes focusing on the murky details of the murder case, as mentioned above, are the best scenes in Agnes of God; it is only when the movie goes off-topic and shows its stage origins that it begins to go wrong. A scene in which Fonda and Bancroft share a forbidden cigarette out in a gazebo, musing about whether “the saints would have smoked”, completely takes the viewer out of the movie. A subplot involving Fonda and her boyfriend, a district attorney, is boring, and reveals nothing more about her character that we don’t already know. These arbitrary scenes feel like they were concocted by John Piehlmeier during individual moments of writer’s block, and it’s a mistake for Jewison to keep them in the film.
There are sequences that feel inspired by elements of film noir, as when a discreet nun drops by Fonda’s door, gives her a helpful bit of advice about the convent records and then leaves without a trace. Or when Fonda, in trying to determine the father of Sister Agnes’ baby, discovers the location of a secret entrance to the convent’s attic: “That’s how he got in! Or how she got out!” Other sequences feel inspired by Hitchcock: there is a sly nod to Vertigo when Fonda and Sister Agnes climb a spiral staircase all the way to the top of a bell tower. And there is a flashback sequence in which Sister Agnes goes hysterical after her hands begin bleeding in a stigmata of sorts, and the blood is as nerve-racking as the blood which so terrified the innocent heroine in Marnie.
But the movie’s highpoint, it must be said, is the climatic sequence in which the Mother Superior and the Fonda character interrogate Sister Agnes and force her to reveal the true identity of the man who fathered her child. This sequence has Agnes flailing around the room and smearing bloody handprints all across the white walls; it’s by far the goriest sequence in Jewison’s career, even in comparison to the cyberpunk violence of Rollerball (1975). In a speech that shares an uncanny resemblance to Harriet Andersson’s speech in Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly (1961)—in which God rapes the heroine in the form of a spider—Agnes claims that God raped her in the convent attic after taking the form of owls and doves. This can only suggest one thing: that God, not Agnes, is the one who is truly responsible for the death of Agnes’ baby.
It was this incendiary plot point of the film that so infuriated Roger Ebert, who launched a vicious attack against Agnes of God in a thought-provoking 1-star review during the movie’s initial release. In the review, Ebert lambastated the film for disguising a theological morality play in the form of a murder mystery. “This is a very badly confused movie,” he wrote. “If God indeed conceived the child in Sister Agnes' womb, then why did he in his omnipotence allow her to kill it? But of course (you argue), God also gave Sister Agnes free will, so she was free to kill the child no matter what the details of its conception. True, and yet then, we must ask, why did God create a baby to be killed? Here we enter, of course, into the still larger question of why God has created all of us and placed us in this life where we will most assuredly all die.”
Ebert’s criticisms are valid, and, unhappily, I am unable to produce a convincing counterargument. It’s certainly an element against the movie’s favor that Agnes of God leaves some important questions unanswered: why did God want a baby to be killed in the first place? On what grounds does the judge finally rule that Agnes “was in no way responsible for her actions”? Who is the movie blaming, exactly, for the baby’s death? The movie provides no straight answers. And while some of those questions are best left unanswered, others feel like they were left unanswered simply because the filmmakers took the day off.
Perhaps some of those answers lie in the last scene of the film, in which the Fonda character declares, over an ambiguous voiceover, that she wants to believe that Agnes may have been a saint after all. That there’s room in the world for miracles. That, in the unforgettable final shot of the film—in which Agnes catches and releases a dove into the wintry distance—another miracle is being released into the world once more, ready to be used again. As Jewison writes in his autobiography, perhaps this is what Agnes of God is really about: a Lamb of God who takes away sins and, through her own personal sacrifice, helps bring a doubtful psychiatrist back into the church. The comparison isn't a coincidence, either—because “Agnes”, in Latin, means “lamb”.