Sanctity as Insanity?
A CINEMATIC VIEW
Having enjoyed the Broadway play Agnes of God in spite of its shortcomings, I approached Norman Jewison’s screen version with interest and enthusiasm. Hoping that the drama might be shorn of its all-too-evident weaknesses as it was transposed to the screen by the author of both play and screenplay, John Pielmeier, I was eager to see a drama that dealt with serious religious questions. Agnes of God is such a film. Unfortunately it is a poor one.
The plot revolves around an alleged infanticide by a young nun, Agnes (Meg Tilly), shortly after she has given birth to the child. The court appoints psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) to investigate what actually happened and whether Sister Agnes should stand trial. In her investigation Dr. Livingston runs up against Mother Miriam (Anne Bancroft), who resents the investigation and wants to shield Agnes, whom she views as blessed by God, from any harm. The ingredients of a classic battle between science and secularism as represented by lapsed Catholic Livingston and faith and religion as represented by Mother Miriam are present. The battle takes place, but while the fighting is occasionally interesting, it seems like a preliminary for a main event that never happens.
Agnes of God does have several things going for it. Efforts at opening up the stage play for the movie screen are successful. Viewing both the indoor scenes of convent life and the lovely outdoor scenes shot in Canada, I never had the feeling I was watching a filmed play. A special blessing is the acting. Fonda, Bancroft, and Tilly match the performances by their Broadway counterparts — Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page, and Meg Tilly. The exceptional acting of the screen trio reminded me that the Broadway play had a long run largely because of the acting.
The film’s weakest element is Pielmeier’s inept probing into religious questions. Almost all the components of an excellent film are present. What is missing is a follow-through by Pielmeier on at least one religious theme. Agnes raises many questions about important topics — the conflict between science and religion; the difference between mysticism and madness, between the macabre and the miraculous; the distinction between sanity and sanctity; the nature of religious life — but resolves none of them. Instead of dramatic integrity we have brilliant moments that only increase our frustration because they lead nowhere.
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