Agnes of God
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A Note Regarding Spoilers

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Agnes of God can be found here.

What is this movie about?

Doctor Martha "Marty" Livingston (Jane Fonda), a court-appointed psychiatrist, is sent to assess the state of mind of Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), a novitiate nun at the Ste. Marie Madeleine convent in Montreal, Quebec, who is suspected of murdering her baby shortly after its birth but has no memory of either the birth or the murder. During her investigation, Livingston encounters opposition from the Mother Superior, Sister Miriam (Anne Bancroft), pressure from both the court and the church (who want to end this case as quickly and quietly as possible), and is forced to face certain issues that led to her own lapse of faith.

Agnes of God is based on a 1979 play written by American playwright and screenwriter John Pielmeier. The play was first performed on Broadway in March of 1982. Pielmeier adapted his play for the movie. The play was subsequently novelized by Leonore Fleischer.

It may be that Pielmeier was inspired by the case of Sister Maureen Murphy, a nun who killed her baby while she was living in a Brighton convent just outside the city of Rochester, New York, a cold and snowy city of the Great Lakes. Sister Maureen was a teacher in her thirties, well educated, living in a suburban, affluent community. She apparently became pregnant nine months previously while attending an educator's conference in another state. The name of the father was never revealed publicly. The name of the convent was St. Agnes. Sister Maureen was acquitted by reason of insanity. She waived a jury trial, and the case was tried before a Jewish judge. The case was a sensation in the 1970s. It is all but forgotten today.

The movie raises two possibilities: (1) Agnes was raped or seduced, or (2) it was a virgin birth, thanks to an act of God. In the case of the real Sister Maureen, it was revealed that she had traveled to an education conference nine months before the birth, whereas Agnes had never left the convent. The father of Sister Maureen's baby was never revealed publicly nor how she became pregnant. Initially, Sister Maureen denied she had ever been pregnant and that she had never had a baby. The other nuns had discovered her in a pool of blood in her room when she had not come down for any meals and had not called in sick at her job as a teacher. She was taken to the hospital where it was determined she had recently given birth. At that point she denied it, the police were called, and the baby was discovered in a trash can in her room, a plastic bag over the baby's head. Sister Maureen claimed throughout her trial that she never knew she was pregnant or how she'd been impregnated. She may have been raped, but no one knows, except for possibly her attorney and the psychiatrist who examined her.

Those were stigmata, marks resembling the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. Stigmata is a recognized phenomenon, although science has not yet explained it. Stigmata are most often displayed by persons while in a state of religious ecstasy and are considered to be a miracle by the Catholic church. The point of Agnes displaying stigmata in the story is to strengthen the idea that, if stigmata are seen as a miracle, could not the miracle of a virgin birth also be possible?

Who is Marie?

The name "Marie" appears twice in the film. The first time is when Agnes tells Dr Livingston about "The Lady" who sings through her and calls out the name "Marie!" The second time is when Livingston talks about her sister Marie, a nun who died while in a convent. Some viewers take this as evidence that Agnes has supernatural knowledge of Livingston's sister, while others point out that Marie is simply the French form of the name Mary and that "Mary" (and variants) was commonly given to many nuns as part of their religious names. Mentioned in the movie are Marie Paul, Marie Madeleine, Mary Magdalen, and Mary Cletis.

How does the movie end?

With only one day left before she is replaced with another psychiatrist, Dr Livingston hypnotizes Agnes for the second time. Agnes reveals that it was Sister Paul who showed her about the secret passage behind the statue of St Michael that would lead her to the barn so that she might see "Him" whom Sr Paul had seen the day before. The stigmata suddenly re-appear on Agnes' hands, and she describes a scene of rapture. When asked who was in the barn with her and who did this to her, Agnes screams, "God...and I'll burn in hell because I hate him!" When asked who else was in the room when she gave birth, she describes how Mother Miriam provided her with the wastebasket then left her alone with the baby in order to go for help. Believing that the baby was a "mistake" made by herself and God, Agnes decided to save the baby by giving it back to God, so she tied the cord around the baby's neck, wrapped her in the bloody sheets, and stuffed her in the trash can. At her court trial, Agnes is declared not responsible for her actions and returned to the convent to be cared for under medical supervision. Agnes suddenly stands up and tells the court how, for six nights, she watched "Him" from her window while he sang to her and how, on the seventh night, "he opened his wings and lay on top of me". She then begins to sing his song. In the final scene, Agnes is in the bell tower singing while, in a voiceover, Livingston presents her view of what happened.

What song...?

...was Agnes singing just before she first meets Dr Livingston? Part of the Catholic mass known as the "Gloria". The particular one she was singing is the Ambrosian "Gloria" (named for St. Ambrose) and is an example of Ambrosian, as opposed to Gregorian, chant. This is characterized by mostly one note for most of the line and the elaborate ending of each line.

...was Sister Genevieve and her family singing just after she took her vows? "Le Bon Vent" (The Good Wind), a traditional French song.

...did Agnes sing in the courtroom? "Over the River Charlie", a traditional song about a girl who loses her virginity. Agnes sings only the first view lines before she is led out of the courtroom, i.e., "Charlie's neat, and Charlie's sweet, and Charlie, he's a dandy / Every time he goes to town, he gets his girl some candy. / Over the river, and through the trees, over the river to Charlie's / Over the river and through the trees, to bake a cake for Charlie." The full text can be found here.

...did Agnes sing just before the credits? That's "Pie Jesu" from the Requiem Mass. Lyrics are "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis / Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis / Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem." (Translation: "Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. / Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. / Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace.")

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