War can sometimes be seen as series of tests —involving patriotism or morals— for those involved as combatants, as well as for those caught in the crossfire. But the particular perplex in which the devout must reconcile their faith with the horror of conflict is not often cinematically depicted with the kind of central focus demonstrated in “Agnus Dei.” Director Anne Fontaine’s film is based on actual events and grapples with thorny questions that plague even the most zealous during times of crisis. It’s a pity, then, that this picture finds Fontaine compelled to find a resolution in a situation that seldom yields easy answers.
It’s December 1945, and World War II is over. But for the nuns at a convent in Poland, a country that’s still politically unstable, there is no respite. French Red Cross worker Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is summoned to the convent for an unlikely task —caring for a sister that’s pregnant. Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) strains to accept an intruder into their sheltered environment, but soon comes into an agreement with Mathilde, particularly when it becomes clear that the sisters can’t handle the pregnancy without some kind of medical professional. It’s soon revealed that more than a half dozen women have become pregnant, raped by Russian troops who arrived in the wake of the Germans.
While Mathilde can sympathize with the traumatized sisters and dispense her medical expertise, she has a harder time understanding how they can maintain strict religious adherence in the face of such tragedy. Certainly, every single principle the sisters believe in is tested at this time, but as Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) imparts with some degree of wisdom, “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope.” As Mathilde soon learns, the brutal assault inflicted on these women goes beyond their bodies: the vow is chastity is sacred, and the possibility of eternal damnation leaves many of the sisters in denial or stricken with concern about how they will be received in the eyes of God.
It’s in this intersection of the spiritual and secular, of Mathilde’s function as a symbol of a progressivism that would not become widespread for another 20 years, contrasted with Sister Maria’s maintaining traditional notions of devotion, that “Agnus Dei” is at its best. Fontaine, who has moved from glamorous biopic (“Coco Before Chanel”), to frothy comedy (“Gemma Bovery”), to button pushing drama (“Two Mothers”), shows an admirably restrained hand here, with a picture that is often beautifully (and appropriately) austere.
Unfortunately, “Agnus Dei,” which shows much finesse and nuance for most of its running time, is hampered by a swing toward conventional dramatics. In addition to Fontaine, three other writers are credited with the screenplay, and the film’s conclusion suggests indecision in how to close the story. For a movie that flirts with profundity, it’s a disappointment that it winds up so pat, with a character clunkily positioned into a villain role, and a rosy finale that does a disservice to an otherwise perceptive picture about physical and spiritual survival and the wrenching emotional toll of trying to understand how God could place such turmoil upon his most faithful servants. In terms of both theme and narrative, “Agnus Dei” is the kind of the story that could only be left as open-ended as possible. The pain felt by these women will last well beyond the winter of 1945, but the screenplay’s shift feels dishonest.
The collaboration between Laâge and Fontaine is one of the strongest qualities of “Agnus Dei,” with the actress and director finding a tone for Mathilde that doesn’t go for the obvious overwrought angles that other filmmakers might venture toward. The character anchors the film with requisite seriousness and just enough lightness of touch to let in levity when needed. It’s a shame that film itself doesn’t maintain that control through to the end as well, leaving “Agnus Dei” to miss some crucial notes in its solemn hymn to living with both fear and faith. [C]