The shadow of the Catholic Church’s hold on Quebec still lingers. Up until 1959, the province was the Catholic stronghold of North America, with the long-standing premier, Maurice Duplessis, effectively ruling the province from the passenger seat. It was always the Church who had the final say, nothing was passed through government that didn’t have the okay of the Archdiocese. While, by the mid-1960s, the power of the Church had fallen starkly, it’s impossible to walk down the streets of Montreal without taking note of the faded relics of the past. Agnes of God, a 1985 film directed by Norman Jewison, takes advantage of this inescapable past by telling the story of an apparent immaculate conception.
In crafting Agnes of God, Jewison takes care in presenting a credible and rich portrait of Montreal. It’s rare that the city plays itself on the screen, more often than not filling in for Paris, London or New York in big budget Hollywood films. More than adhering to the natural architecture and atmosphere, Jewison injects linguistic flavor into his portrayal. Characters are not unilingual, and language is treated as interchangeable currency, as moving through the city or through different hallways means a negotiation of linguistic value. French here, English there — the power struggle of language fresh off the first failed referendum. Below the surface of personality, language and scientific clashes exists deep institutional insecurity. The modern world is descending, it’s no longer possible to hold onto miracles.
The film opens with Agnes (Meg Tilly) found in her room bleeding profusely. In a waste-paper basket, an asphyxiated newborn is found dead. Agnes with her round, unlined face and upcast eyes evokes a strong resemblance with Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne D’Arc. Agnes does not have any recollection of her conception, she does not even seem to understand sex. The film plays out like a procedural thriller, with Jane Fonda as an agnostic psychiatrist and Anne Bancroft as the Mother Superior of the convent butting heads.
The treatment of female sexuality within the scope of religion is wrought with shame. Agnes, in ignorance of her own body, is continually victimized by those around her — by men, by the church and by other institutions who wish to use her story as a symbol. Her autonomy is twisted and broken down. Somehow, though, like a Bressonian heroine, there is a resolute strength to her belief. In her unwavering daze, she has a nobility that challenges those around her. The beauty of the film is that she transcends the victim narrative; she embodies in many ways the ideals of womanhood in the church — but similarly empowered by her faith, she becomes a danger to it as well. Agnes starts to exist beyond the institutions that are trying to control her. She begins to transcend simple analysis with the unwavering devotion of a saint without any hint of duplicity. With acute evidence, her body becomes both a biological and spiritual object, and it is increasingly her own.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.