Movie: Agnes of God
Release Date: August 21, 1985
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilly.
Tag Lines: “That night, murder wasn’t the only sin.”
“What unspeakable crime took place behind the third floor window? Only Agnes knows. And Dr. Martha Livingston is the one person who can unravel the mystery.”
Awards: Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Anne Bancroft (nomination), Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Meg Tilly (nomination), Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score, George Delerue (nomination), Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, Meg Tilly (winner), Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Anne Bancroft (nomination), Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay Based in Material from Another Medium, John Pielmeier (nomination).
Relevance: [DISCLAIMER: I don’t care what religious affiliation you happen to fall under, whether it be Catholic, Jewish , Protestant, Buddhist or atheist. I don’t judge you. At all. If it makes you a happier human being and an overall good person, you can believe whatever you want to. Just please don’t look down on anyone that differs in opinion. And don’t judge others and think you are better than they are. You are not. We are all equal. The following story is not meant to infuriate anyone. It is just a story about me and my personal journey regarding religion. You don’t have to like it. But it is my truth. And I have every right to speak it.]
I was born and raised strict Catholic. I attended church every Sunday and went to Catholic school from first grade through Senior year in High School. I was an altar boy, very active in the music ministry and youth groups and I received all of the eligible sacraments. If I ever missed a mass either on Sunday or one of the holy days of obligation, I had to go to confessions before receiving Communion again. I had to give up things during Lent as well as fast. On Good Friday from noon to three o’clock I wasn’t allowed to watch television and attended church services. Due to my involvement, there was a time in my life that I was going to more masses on weekends then some priests. At one point as a very young child I even wanted to become a priest. Those that know me now might say, what the hell happened? Well, let me tell you…Sister Elizabeth.
Sister Elizabeth was my eighth grade teacher and she was a miserable, horrible teacher to say the least. I know that there were a lot of my classmates and friends that loved her and thought she was the best, but she wasn’t. She was the worst. The absolute worst. I could fill hundreds of journals about how awful she was, but I will only focus on one story, a story that started my life towards my atheism. So as much as I loathed her, I am forever indebted to her.
Picture it. 1985. St. Ann’s School, Scranton, Pennsylvania. A shy, fourteen year old Catholic school student asks “why” in a religion discussion. The old penguin impersonating a teacher did not respond. The shy student who rarely asked any questions asked “why” once again. The penguin looked at the student, this time yelling, screaming even, “We don’t ask questions. We just accept it.” The shy student cowered and stopped. That penguin was Sister Elizabeth. And that young shy Catholic school student was me.
“We don’t ask questions. We just accept it.” Now I do not remember what our exact discussion was about in that particular religion class, but I remember her yelling those two statements at me. In fact, I’ll never forget it. I didn’t flip a switch and become an atheist the next day based on her ridiculousness, but those statements stayed with me. They stayed with me my entire life.
I didn’t see ‘Agnes of God’ in theaters, but I did watch it some time in 1986. Throughout my high school years, I was a member of my church youth group. We met every Monday and had discussions, played games, planned service outings or events and on some Mondays we watched movies. One of those movies was ‘Agnes of God.’
I was absolutely fascinated with the movie. The story was very compelling and totally captivated me. The character Jane Fonda played was especially interesting to me. Dr. Martha Livingston, a psychiatrist and ex-Catholic atheist is sent to a convent to investigate whether a nun is competent enough to stand trial. Her heated discussions with the Mother Superior, brilliantly played by Anne Bancroft, are the real highlights of the movie for one simple reason. She kept asking questions. She kept. Asking. Questions. It took me back a year earlier to my encounter with Sister Elizabeth. I wish I hadn’t cowered. I wish I hadn’t stopped asking questions.
I rented the movie again after watching it the first time so I could watch it even more intently. Alone. Without distraction. When it played on HBO, I watched it every time that I possibly could. I never tired of it. I loved how the movie was open ended and left room for discussion. It allowed viewers to ask questions. Something I was told that I shouldn’t do. Afterwards, I read the play of the same name of which the movie is based by John Pielmeier. I then researched all things religion, every religion, not just Catholicism as well as atheism. Although I played the “good Catholic boy” game for a few years after, by the time I was twenty-five, I let it all go.
My battles with religion, especially Catholicism, didn’t end there. I have much more angst and reasons why I am the way that I am now. But those stories are for another time, another movie. ‘Agnes of God’ and Sister Elizabeth will always be the beginning of my clarity and my “baptism” into reality. As I always say, “I used to be Catholic, but then I grew brains and stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago.” And I ask questions. I ask questions all the time.
Today’s Thoughts: When you are home alone during a pandemic, one might pray. One might have sex. One might eat. Everything. All the time. What do I do? I watch movies. And today I watched ‘Agnes of God.’
It’s such a great movie. The three performances alone are worth the watch. Jane Fonda is great but Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly are outstanding in their roles. They both received Academy Award nominations for them and both are well deserved. Ms. Tilly is so young, pure and innocent and plays her dramatic scenes perfectly. My favorite moments are still between Ms. Fonda and Ms. Bancroft though. They play off each other so well. So, so good. I need to direct this show sometime in the near future.
I absolutely love how this movie ends. Nothing is wrapped up nicely. We know more, but not everything. Some questions are answered, but some have not even begun to be thought about. This is a movie that stays with you long after the credits stop rolling.
“I want to believe that she was blessed. And I do miss her. And I hope she’s left something; some little part of herself with me. That would be miracle enough, wouldn’t it?”
I highly recommend this movie.
Ways to Watch: Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, DVD Availability.