AGNES OF GOD
US, 1985, 98 minutes, Colour.
Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilley.
Directed by Norman Jewison.
Agnes of God is based on a play by John Piehlmeier who adapted it for the screen. Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Moonstruck) has directed it in a wintry Montreal. Jane Fonda is the psychologist, Anne Bancroft (Oscar nominated) is the Superior, Meg Tilley (also Oscar nominated) is the mysterious, innocent and naive novice, Agnes.
The film, shows something of life within a convent, an old style enclosed order. It focuses on a young novice who kills her child but does not know how she conceived it. The exploration by the psychologist reveals aspects of religious life, psychological battering, a desire for the love of God. This strange mix is persuasively and intriguingly portrayed. The three actresses are at their best, the dialogue often crackles with wit as well exploring deeper themes of innocence and naivety, sexuality, religious aspirations, human and divine love, virginal conception. The film is also filled with religious symbolism: Agnes of God like the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei); Latin hymns whose texts fit the themes including the Our Father and the final hymn that Agnes sings, 'Lamb of God, Give Us Peace'.
Music is by Georges Delerue and photography by Sven Nykvist.
1. Impact as drama? Psychological drama? Religious drama?
2. The author adapting his play for the screen, opening it out, focusing on characters and dialogue? Dramatic interaction? The Montreal settings, the glimpses of the city, the streets, Martha's apartment, law buildings? The contrast with the enclosed convent and its environment, its interiors? The contrast between the world and the cloister? The musical score: hymns, Latin hymns, French- Canadian songs, Georges Delerue's score?
3. The cast and its strength bringing credibility to the characters and the interactions?
4. Audience presuppositions about the Catholic church, knowledge of the church? Authority within the church, clergy and bishop? Convents, enclosed orders? Their way of life, strict rule, enclosure, asceticism? Audience attitudes towards religion and religious belief? Belief in God? The love of God? The role of suffering? The importance of asceticism? Chastity? The question of the virgin birth, pregnancy, violence? How well did the film incorporate these ingredients for a contemporary drama?
5. Agnes' experience: the various possibilities - rape, seduction, angelic visitation, the Holy Spirit, virginal conception? her ignorance? The experience of pregnancy and sickness? The actual birth, the scream, the blood? The death of the child?
6. The opening with the peaceful convent, the scream, the lights, Mother Miriam hurrying, the ambulance, the baby in the garbage basket? The presentation of the mystery? The gradual information given about Agnes herself, her memories, her mother, attitudes towards children? The involvement of Mother Miriam? The flashbacks and the hypnotism? The final truth?
7. Audiences identifying with Martha Livingstone? Jane Fonda’s style? Assigned to the case, her feminist stances with her colleagues, her quests? The obsession with smoking and its significance, repetition? Her birthday and taking the case? Her visit, her attitude towards the convent and the nuns? Her clash with Mother Miriam? Her presenting a rational examination of Agnes' situation? Her response to Agnes, beginning to share with her, the puzzle? dislike of Mother Miriam? Suspicions of Father Martineau? Her visit to him, his age, frank discussions, the drink? Alone at midnight in her apartment, the phone answering machine? Her visit to her mother, her mother's lapse of memory, identifying her as Marie instead of Martha? The change about the ice cream? Her cruelty towards her daughter? The truth about Marie and her death in a convent? The truth about Martha, her marriage, the abortion? The interviews with Agnes and their effect on Martha? Questions and answers and Agnes asking questions? The visits and her getting to know her? Her voice, her jog, her singing? Her ignorance of the pregnancy? Her self-image? The importance of her mother, the humiliation and molesting? The cigarette burns? The warning about babies? The mother acting out her own experience on Agnes? Agnes acting out her mother's behaviour? Her love of Martha, Martha loving her 'as God'? The build-up to the hypnotism, the revelation of the truth? The effect on Martha? The staff of the court, the trial? The court and Agnes' withdrawing? The end and Martha's observation, the hope that part of Agnes would be continually with her? Despite the puzzle?
8. Martha and Miriam and the clash, suspicions, Martha's presence in the convent, her discoveries about the convent, about Agnes and Miriam, the files, Agnes as Miriam's niece, her knowledge of the pregnancy, Miriam saying it was too late to do anything? The rapport between the two women, the sharing of the cigarette, the jokes about the saints smoking? The discussion about miracles and Miriam's need for faith? The continued clash, rival mothers? The finding out of the information about the tunnel, the discussion about the possibilities for Agnes' pregnancy? The parallels between the Gospel Martha and Mary with Miriam and Martha? The parallels between Martha and Mary with herself and her sister? Marie as a nun? Martha as worrying and fretting?
9. The portrait of Mother Miriam: her place in the community, her helping Agnes, the death of the child? Agnes as part of her own family? Her comments on her being married, her children not seeing her and disowning her? Her bluntness with Martha, 'Agnes as bananas'? The interaction with Martha, the suspicion of psychologically taking of Agnes' mind apart? Her holding back information, the involvement with her sister, her taking Agnes into the convent, the family concern? Knowledge of her sister's behaviour? Her smoking and the jokes with Martha? The treatment or the novices? The comments on menstruation? Her concern about Agnes, the stigmatic hysteric experience? The community, the, variety of sisters, their liking and disliking her? Her going to the city and trying to stop Martha's investigation? Her own religious stance, loss of faith, her hope for saints. her desire for miracles? Sharing in the experience of Agnes' hypnosis and the discovery of the truth?
10. The portrait of Agnes: the situation, her singing, Agnes as the Lamb of God, in white, the contrast with the blood, the blood of the lamb? her hysteric experience and stigma? The questions and her declaration of God's love, her God language? Innocence and naivety, ignorance of the pregnancy? The flashbacks and her acting out her past, her mother and the ugly experiences, stripped and molested and burnt, the warnings about babies? Acting out her mother's story? The flashbacks and the penitential aspect, the fasting, prostration, stigmata, menstruation? The influence of Sister Paul and the mystical and sexual language? The secret place, the bell, the singing? The tunnel, the birds and the Holy Spirit? St. Michael? Sister Paul's death? The hypnosis and the effect of the truth? Her memories of the baby's birth, the death of the baby? Acting out he-r mother's attitudes? The courtroom, her final withdrawing? Sane or insane? Victim? Innocence?
11. Sister Paul and her time in the convent, her effect on Agnes, her language, her death? Also madness being acted out by Agnes?
12. The fellow novice, the Profession ceremony, Martha’s visit and the contrast with Agnes' experience and the novices? Her being with a loving family, singing, dedicated to the community?
13. Father Martineau and his age, his wise and shrewd observations? His attending Sister Paul?
14. The court sequences, the lawyers, Martha's getting help and investigations?
15. The atmosphere of the convent: prayer, silence, the contrast with the happy mood of the nuns skating?
16. A Catholic film? Catholic traditions? Catholic mysteries?