‘Agnus Dei’ A Sundance Dispatch

Alissa Wilkinson | Agnus Dei tries to approach (but not fix) the repercussions of unspeakable cruelty with the quiet balm of beauty. A must-see film that quietly suggests a surprising answer to the problem of evil. (image by Anna Wloch)

One of the oldest refrains in the world is the theodicy question: how could a good God let bad things happen?

That question animates Agnus Dei, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday. But the film's answer is expansive, complex, and subtly subversive. Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovary) and led by an all-female cast, the movie tries to approach (but not fix) the repercussions of unspeakable cruelty with the quiet balm of beauty.

Agnus Dei is set in 1945, amid the ruins of World War II. Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is a young French doctor working with the Red Cross in Poland. Through an unusual set of circumstances, she comes into contact with a convent of Polish nuns who, she discovers, are in advanced stages of pregnancy. Months earlier, a group of Russian soldiers had broken into the convent and raped the women repeatedly, staying for several days. The horror haunts them still, even while they have tried to regain their faith and practice their vocation. Full of shame, they’re convinced of the need to conceal their condition, lest they be shut down by their superiors. And yet the reminders linger in their own bodies and, nine months later, are about to arrive.

Mathilde isn't Catholic; over vodka one night, she tells her fellow doctor and sometime lover Samuel (who himself is Jewish) that her parents were staunch Communists, and she seems untroubled by her lack of faith. Late in the film, it becomes clear that Mathilde and Samuel, considered by some to be the unholy interlopers in a world of peace and piety, are in fact more aware of the implications of their own vocation as doctors than some of the women in the convent.

That in part is the genius of the film: it doesn't force Mathilde or Samuel to have some kind of religious awakening in order to act as an angel of mercy for the nuns, nor does it lump all the pregnant women into one category, with one way of thinking about their predicament. Those women are painted as full, complex characters in a few deft strokes—women who are struggling after rape to know whether they believe in something anymore, to understand their vows of chastity, to live in the problem of theodicy every day.

The word "beauty" gets tossed around irresponsibly a lot, often by people who feel the need to invoke it in art's defense. But that does beauty a disservice. It is not a quality that lets us feel the things we find pleasant are worthwhile; it is an unruly, unsafe force that we feel in our bones rather than our minds, and that makes us desire. (To say that beauty is erotic isn't to tie it to sex; it's to say it makes us want, in a non-rational way.)

So to say Agnus Dei is a stunningly beautiful film isn't to aestheticize it. Most of the film’s images could be paintings, images of women shot in the natural light and shadow of the convent, of stark forests laden with snow, backed by the sounds of the women singing their prayers and—finally—Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (which I only recognized because it’s the melody that makes me most achingly sad, in all the world). But every bit of this comes at great price to the wounded and victimized.

But it is that beauty, evoked by the film's sensual elements rather than its narrative ones, that forms the film’s run at the theodicy question. Various characters try to give an answer for what has happened through appeals to beauty’s companions: truth and goodness. But those are insufficient on their own. Living a perfect life after tragedy cannot heal the tragedy; simply reiterating the truth isn’t enough to cover violence.

The characters never talk about beauty, living in the austerity of war-torn Poland on the one hand and the convent on the other. Instead, Fontaine allows the images and music to simply seep into the viewer’s bones, suggesting a third way of living with trauma. As one of the nuns points out to Mathilde, even when the war ends, the world is not going to be more kind to them. What saves them, ultimately, is a closer connection to the world outside their walls, to messier parts of life, to the beauty of the world in its woundedness.

In his dense book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, David Bentley Hart writes about beauty and power:

Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace: that the desire awakened by the shape of Christ and his church is one truly reborn as agape, rather than merely the way in which a lesser force succumbs to a greater, as an episode in the endless epic of power.

The film’s French title is Les innocentes, which is perhaps a better moniker. Many “innocent” people have been victimized by those with power—from the nuns and their offspring to the children who need someone to watch over them. Peace is what they yearn for: peace in which the lesser force, having surrendered to a greater one, is not hurt but made whole.

Agnus Dei doesn't give a definitive solution. It just points to a few starting places. And it makes us long for peace.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.

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The film is uneven, but Joy knows just who she is. (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
The text at the beginning of Joy, the latest film from director David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook), says it is “inspired by the true stories of daring women . . . one in particular.”
Jennifer Lawrence, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, Dashca Polanco, Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro, and Diane Ladd in 'Joy'
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Jennifer Lawrence, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, Dashca Polanco, Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro, and Diane Ladd in 'Joy'
That “one” is Joy Mangano, played here by Jennifer Lawrence, who is always fun to watch and certainly holds the film together. The character and her story are based on Mangano’s true story of inventing the Magic Mop, hawking it on the still-new QVC, and overcoming difficulty to become a business mogul able to support other inventors and entrepreneurs.
Russell makes weird and frenetic movies that aren’t to everyone’s taste. They lurch around a bit and at times seem more infatuated with style than substance or coherence. That shows up again in Joy, which is narrated by Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) and includes a montage introduction and a couple early black-and-white scenes from a melodrama, shot in soap opera style. Soon we segue into a whirling-dervish madcap romp through Joy’s house, with Joy as the axis, populated by a motley crew of relatives: Joy’s two children and her grandmother Mimi; Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), an aspiring singer who still lives in the basement long after the divorce; her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), who stays in bed and watches soap operas; her father Rudy (Robert De Niro, another Russell regular), who’s moving back in after his latest split—though he’ll have to share space with his ex-son-in-law, whom he sometimes-cordially hates. (Good thing he swiftly finds a new girlfriend in Trudy, played by Isabella Rossellini.) The family also includes Joy’s half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), who manages Rudy’s auto repair shop and is by turns affectionate and undermining toward Joy’s efforts.
Jennifer Lawrence, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, Dashca Polanco, Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro, and Diane Ladd in 'Joy'
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Edgar Ramirez in 'Joy'
As it turns out, she learned that behavior from the family more generally. We come to understand that Joy was a gifted child with big aspirations and an active imagination, an inventor from her youth. But time and circumstance have left her, still young and vibrant, with a lot of mouths to feed and egos to placate. Those egos delight in tearing down her aspirations in the most passive-aggressive manner I can imagine (consider this your trigger warning).
But Joy is scrappy and persistent, and she fights her way onto QVC, still a fledgling network headed by Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, of course). What follows is ups and downs, excruciating failure and exhilarating success, licensing debacles and mismanagement and tense negotiations. In Lawrence’s portrayal of Joy, she’s a tired, determined woman with a lot of charm and grit and desperation who can still be reduced by those she loves to a puddle of despair. What we’re watching is not the building of an empire, but a woman coming into her own.
That part of the film is cathartic and enjoyable, if unevenly told. Yet it leaves us with a lot of desires. For instance, I want a film about all the personalities around QVC, and around Mangano’s own later business ventures. Futures are hinted at that seem terribly interesting, enough that in this age of film-to-TV, you can’t help wonder if a series is lurking in someone’s mind. (Given how character-driven it is, the film would work splendidly, and probably be received more warmly by both audiences and critics, as an offbeat prestige comedic drama.) I want a coherently-told story; I don’t want the feeling of rushing from scene to scene.
lisabeth Rohm, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro in 'Joy'
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Elisabeth Rohm, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro in 'Joy'
At the film's core is our favorite sort of story as Americans, a good old-fashioned pull-up-your-bootstraps, rags-to-riches tale of rising from humble circumstances through sheer force of will. And to tell you the truth, I was into it. By the end of Joy I felt strangely similar to the end of American Hustle—frustrated by the filmmaking, but enamored of the characters, except I didn’t feel dirty for rooting for the main character. In fact, I felt an affinity to her. I wanted to be like her. That’s the point: she’s a daring woman and meant to be an inspiration, and thankfully, she really is. (The real Joy Mangano, by the way, currently holds more than 100 patents.)
Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence in 'Joy'
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence in 'Joy'
And so, even though Joy never really seems to figure out what sort of a movie it is, it’s still a lot of fun to watch—mostly because the woman at its center knows exactly who she is.
Caveat Spectator
The film is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, which is exactly what it sounds like: expletives. Otherwise, it’s all family drama.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, May 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.