That night, murder wasn't the only sin.
Agnes of God is a hit stage play written by John Pielmeier that continues to populate the performance schedules of regional theatres across the country due to its powerful yet simplistically told theme. Its stark yet passionate subject matter about a nun who mysteriously gives birth and then strangles the baby was begging for a cinematic treatment, so in 1985 director Norman Jewison (The Hurricane) collected the formidable talents of Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, and Meg Tilly for the screen adaptation. Columbia TriStar brings it to the small screen for home viewing on DVD.
Facts of the Case
When Agnes (Meg Tilly, The Big Chill), soaked in blood, is found by her fellow nuns, a potential scandal hits peaceful Montreal. For, after Agnes is taken away in an ambulance, a more startling discovery is made by Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft, The Graduate): a newborn baby, dead in Agnes' wastebasket.
The government must prosecute, but this is a delicate case, and Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond), a court psychiatrist with issues aplenty, reluctantly takes on the case. Agnes' sweet simplicity fascinates her, however, and despite the stubborn reticence of the Mother Superior, she is determined to uncover the truth—even if that truth is hard to believe.
Upon her first visit, Martha is confronted with a Mother Superior who wants as little investigation from the courts as possible; she firmly believes the event was a miracle. Martha, constantly with a cigarette in her hand, dismisses this and tries to squeeze the truth out of Agnes. Agnes seems to be a simple girl, shy, sweet, and enthused about God. Orphaned, she was taken into the convent and quickly assimilated into the bare but compassionate way of a nun's life. Her fervor about God reflects what could be mental imbalance, and her secret pregnancy doesn't seem so secret to Martha. Surely, someone knew something. Surely, a man encountered Agnes and impregnated her, and scared, Agnes kept quiet until the fateful night.
As Martha digs deeper, her court colleagues get impatient and the Mother Superior becomes more threatened. Martha is also confronted with her own demons—a sister who died in a convent, a mother who, in her senility, rejects her, and an abortion years ago that left her barren. However, these issues are not touched on as much as they should to give proper context to her struggles at the convent. Finally, the trail of confusion leads to clarity, and the outcome may surprise or even disturb viewers. Let's just say that you atheists out there won't buy it. This cafeteria Catholic, however, was pretty fascinated by Agnes Of God.
Moving at a brisk clip and clocking in at a lean 98 minutes, Agnes of God doesn't waste time getting to the good parts. And there are many—mostly due to the exceptional acting. It's no surprise Bancroft and Tilly—by the way, where did she disappear to?—earned Oscar nominations, and Fonda was probably passed over because three acting nods for one movie may have seemed slightly indulgent. Still, all three actresses are excellent in their respective roles. The direction is fairly standard, letting the story tell itself. I never thought of Jewison as a master director, but his straightforwardness works very well for the film. One scene in particular in which Fonda and Bancroft bond over a cigarette is a lovely example of fine acting and hands-off direction.
The transfer is about the same as Jewison's direction—standard. A nice 1.85:1 widescreen presentation, it shows no edge enhancement and few flaws. I caught some white blotches and fine grain here and there, but nothing to distract for the viewers enjoyment of the film. Colors were clean and crisp, with blacks solid and colors well saturated.
The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio track in English and French complemented the film with a nice depth—i.e., car doors slamming competed well with the background music. This is a nice mix that's not too heavy on the bells and whistles, but definitely providing an evenhandedness in mixing all elements of dialogue, background noise, and soundtrack. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese.
The extras on Agnes Of God are pretty slim. We get bonus trailers to entertain us—of another Jewison film, A Soldier's Story, and a Fonda film, The China Syndrome. A treat to see trailers for these two fine films, but, uh, can we get one for Agnes of God? How hard could it have been to dig up a trailer from this relatively recent film?
Agnes of God will bring up a lot of issues for many Catholics, both active and lapsed. It doesn't really say anything new about these issues by merely glossing over Dr. Livingston's back story, but the plot at hand—Agnes' mysterious childbirth—is gripping enough to turn out a compelling story. However, do you think this DVD presentation could offer a bit more than trailers of the participants' past works instead of the film at hand—and perhaps a commentary track? Just asking…
With this drought of extras, there's no way you're going to heaven without saying a few Hail Mary's. Perhaps the strength of the transfer will at least get you to purgatory. See you at church next week!
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• Two Theatrical Trailers
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