Times Staff Writer

In a fine stone convent in the countryside near Montreal, a young nun has given birth and her strangled baby is found in a wastebasket.

The old science versus religion debate that is at the heart of the tedious and contrived “Agnes of God” (at Avco Center Cinema) gets under way quickly. It commences as soon as a court-appointed psychiatrist (Jane Fonda), who is to determine whether Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) is fit to stand trial for manslaughter, meets the convent’s mother superior (Anne Bancroft).

Right off, Bancroft’s Mother Miriam Ruth makes it clear that she’s opposed to psychiatry. Fonda’s Dr. Martha Livingston exclaims, “I’m not from the Inquisition!” Bancroft counters, “I’m not from the Middle Ages!"--yet proceeds to act as if she were. But Fonda doesn’t behave much better. When Bancroft declares of Tilly “She belongs to God!,” Fonda responds, with immense presumption, “And I intend to take her away from Him!”


Why has John Pielmeier, in adapting his popular play, gone to such pains to demonstrate that these adversaries are both bright, breathtakingly articulate women, only to show their thinking trapped in logic-tight compartments?

It’s true that Mother Miriam Ruth is experiencing a spiritual crisis and that Dr. Livingston is an embittered ex-Catholic whose sister, a nun, died in a convent. (Oddly, the film deletes the crucial information that the doctor’s sister died of appendicitis because her mother superior wouldn’t send her to a hospital. This is but the first of a number of inexplicable deletions from the play.) Yet in women of such evident maturity and intellect, these seem insufficient reasons for neither being able even to entertain the notion that faith and psychiatry aren’t necessarily mortal enemies.

That they cannot do so manifests the familiar problem of dramatic conflict growing not out of the characters. Instead, the characters merely exemplify different points of view to further the argument.

Heightening this sense of the synthetic is the seesawing quality of the relationship between these two women. They grow close, even seeming to communicate, only to strike out at each other, again not so much out of the dictates of their own natures but more from a dramatist’s conviction that he constantly has to strike sparks. The unhappy effect of this is to leave us feeling that each is finally more concerned with herself than with the poor nun, a point that might have been validly developed but which seems surely not to have been intended by Pielmeier--at least, not with such emphasis.

And what of Sister Agnes, who has been so subjected to unspeakable mental and physical abuse by a demented mother that she hates herself, convinced of her innate “badness”? Is she truly the innocent that she seems to be--and that Mother Miriam Ruth proclaims her to be? And who is the father of her child? Or has she experienced divine conception?

Is Sister Agnes actually the murderer of her own baby? If so, why? Are Sister Agnes’ recurrent stigmata psychosomatic or miraculous? None of these questions have anywhere near the urgency they should because “Agnes of God” is so insistently more debate than drama. Had they been more urgent, Pielmeier might have effectively raised the ultimate question that is only fleetingly suggested: Were the Christ Child born today, would He have survived birth in so crazy and paranoid a world?

While “Agnes of God” (rated PG-13) has been considerably opened up, it is actually muddled in its transfer from stage to screen. It finally can’t sustain the prestige treatment it receives here: the dark glow of the lighting of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who has photographed so many Ingmar Bergman films; the beautiful simplicity of the convent, the discreet Georges Delerue score, the sheer intelligence and force of Fonda and Bancroft as women who at last recognize that each needs to believe in miracles, the sweetness and torment so well embodied by Tilly. Norman Jewison’s direction is always tasteful but relentlessly neutral in the face of material that demands commitment of the kind that Fred Schepisi brought to “The Devil’s Playground,” his semiautobiographical account of a youth’s coming of age in a seminary where body and soul were set to eternal war with each other, just as they are in Sister Agnes. Once again, in addition to Bergman, one has to look to Bresson and Dreyer for true spirituality on the screen.


A Columbia presentation. Producers Patrick Palmer, Norman Jewison. Director Jewison. Screenplay John Pielmeier; based on his play. Camera Sven Nykvist. Music Georges Delerue. Production designer Ken Adam. Associate producers Charles Milhaupt, Bonnie Palef-Woolf. Costumes Renee April. Film editor Anthony Gibbs. With Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilly, Anne Pitoniak, Winston Rekert, Gratien Gelinas, Guy Hoffman, Gabriel Arcand.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (some material may be too intense for children under 13).