Sister Agnes, who suffers from one of those stage-and-screen-only mental illnesses that cause you to speak in meaningless but clever-sounding blurts, is found with a dead newborn and covered in blood. The government finds the most disturbed psychologist in Canada and sends her to the convent where the murder suspect has been allowed to stay. Once there, she spends most of her time verbally sparing with cute-and-crotchety Mother Superior until everyone forgets the point and the film just ends.
Agnes of God could have been an enlightening look at spirituality, or a psychological character study of three troubled people, or an engaging mystery. It sets up all three, and then chooses none. It undercuts any hard statements on religion by focusing on the failings of the individuals. It says nothing about the minds of the characters except that they are messed up (and even pulls back on that). And the mystery only has one suspect and it never even bothers to answer all of the who-done-its.
The basics: Sister Agnes, who is a loony of the first order, has a baby without any knowledge of sex nor with access to a man. That baby ends up dead without there ever being doubt that she killed it. Mother Miriam’s answer, and the film’s, is clear about ten minutes in: God is the father. Yes, it’s virgin birth time. Miracles are still happening, but only to people who’s minds have been purified of thought. And where does the momentous event of a second son of God and its death lead us? Strangely, nowhere. Once Agnes of God has established that miracles happen, it drops all consequences. If I were writing a script, and I killed off the new Christ as an infant, I’d…oh, I don’t know…maybe have that MEAN SOMETHING. But not here.
The Catholic Church does get a beating, but only the kind that shows that deep down it’s really swell. Demonstrating its hip modernism, the film points out failings in the church, such as The Inquisition, and nuns in the past blaming the death of a child on her not saying her prayers. It then smiles and pats religion on the head, noting that such events were due to a few stupid people, and hey, what’cha going to do about people anyway? From time to time, atheist Dr. Livingston makes some screeching attack on Christianity, but seldom do her comments have any real bite and are easily ignored because she’s a bitter neurotic. I’ve seldom seen a movie put more effort in to pointing out that someone is screwed up, down to little things, such as her cigarette addiction being rammed in our faces. You see, she isn’t an atheist because of well thought out arguments or just never having a reason to join a church. Oh no. She (like all atheists as that’s what she represents) has taken her stance purely because she was hurt. Her mother is an institutionalized bitch who liked her other daughter better and that sister (in both senses) died in a convent. And yes, our good doctor was envious of that dead nun (but don’t look for any reason as this is all just dumped in the film; I was waiting for someone to walk by and say, “Hey doc, how is your heroine problem? See you later,” and then exit the picture). Plus, because we need more, the doc had an abortion when she was younger and God has punished her by making her barren. So any religious comment she makes is prefixed with: “Because I’m an emotionally stunted Church-hater who has no ability to look at the situation rationally, I will now say…” It doesn’t make for a meaningful debate.
Not that there should be any discussion of religion between these characters anyway. I could be wrong, but I bet that most court appointed psychologists do their job. This one doesn’t. She plays amateur sleuth and goes after Agnes like she’s looking for some hot, lesbian nun-sex. When not drooling over the young saint-to-be, she’s bickering with the mother superior instead of tending to minor issues like: Is Agnes crazy? Maybe the doctor is just tired from all her histrionics. Yelling and accusation is her normal form for conversation, which has got to be exhausting. In this she’s joined by Mother Ruth who can’t go more than a minute before making an overly-loud recrimination. These two need some hefty sedatives.
While everyone’s words are cast into doubt (Livingston is twisted, Ruth is devious, and Agnes is crackers), it is Agnes we’re meant to believe when the credits roll. She’s a pure mystic who’s mind and body have been touched by God. When she says her dead and sadistic mother is watching her, don’t try and find a symbolic meaning. She is the light and the way, and it only required being abused as a child and kept mentally underdeveloped to reach this state.
Which of the confused and always equivocated messages is the most troubling? That someone only gives up religion because they are angry? That truth is best found in insanity? That complete ignorance (the young nuns are both confused and ashamed by menstruation) is a positive life choice? Or that God can do horrible things, but that’s OK because he’s God so don’t think about it? For this site, it’s the first, but all should make you shiver.
I may dislike the position of The Passion of the Christ, but I have to respect its lack of ambiguity. Agnes of God doesn’t have the courage to stick with its convictions. It proclaims its themes, and then meekly murmurs that it might be wrong. It allows for, but does not support, a realist answer to what happened to Agnes (without filling in the most important blank). Anyone who wants to ignore the Christian implications of the film can, but will find in that case, there isn’t much of a story.