Agnes (2021)

It is no spoiler to say that Agnes ends with two people at a diner quietly and earnestly engaged in an intense theological discussion. In fact, one might even suggest that this latest feature from Mickey Reece, which he co-wrote with John Selvidge, is one long extended religious discourse – albeit not always so quiet or earnest – on the connection between God and humanity, on the problem of evil, and on the struggle of faith in a world of suffering. It sits superficially alongside Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta as one of two nun-focused films that 2021 had to offer, but while Verhoeven’s period film inevitably comes with the bigger profile (for having more, and more explicit, sex scenes, as well as simply for being made by Verhoeven), there is considerably more meat in the sandwich of Reece’s present(ish)-day picture, there for the viewer to chew on and digest at leisure. Like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019), Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) and Valentín Javier Diment’s El Apego (2021), Agnes is formally divided into two halves that together tell a single, if fragmented story – and it is up to us to discern its thematic symmetries and to unify its parts. Here we, like its protagonist, are sent on a quest for meaning to satisfy what one character refers to as “spiritual hunger”.

The first half unfolds mostly in the strictly run Carmelite convent of Santa Theresa, where melancholic young nun Mary (the extraordinary Molly Quinn) observes as her friend Agnes (Hayley McFarland, morphing into Beetlejuice-era Winona Ryder) suddenly becomes the epicentre of what appears to be a classic demonic possession, complete with blasphemous cursing, self harm, psychokinetic activities and appetitive assaults. Father Frank Donaghue (Ben Hall), a worldy and rather rakish priest whose career is under a cloud owing to allegations of sexual scandal but who has had some experience with the rite of exorcism, is sent in by the Bishop to investigate. Possibly being set up for a fall, Frank is accompanied by his one-time student Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), a serious and devout young man just on the point of taking his vows. As things quickly spiral out of control, Frank summons his old friend Father Henry Black (Chris Browning), a celebrity exorcist long excommunicated from the Catholic Church – but as first Frank and then Henry preen about performatively like cocks in a henhouse, Agnes gives the patriarchal authority of the two priests an aggressively in-their-face undermining, and sows perhaps devilish doubt among several of those present.

Exorcism is, as Frank says, “one of the most elaborate song-and-dance acts the world has ever seen”, and accordingly the film’s first half is full of over-the-top histrionics, playing out the sexy, silly, schlocky sensationalism of the nunsploitation subgenre while following its own mannered tangents with surprise and wit. Yet Reece’s wildcard is then to decentre the title character (who, like Frank, vanishes from the film) and to lurch unexpectedly into an altogether less shrill, more naturalist mode to portray Mary’s post-convent life, as she strives to make her rent from various low-pay jobs and perhaps to find a purpose, or even God, in the precarious misery of her day-to-day. With the questions that first drove her to become a nun still unanswered, Mary exists in a state of sustained grief and emptiness, and tries to fill the gaping hole in her own life by pursuing the man who was once at the heart of Agnes’, the older ex-teacher and comedian Paul Satchimo (Sean Gunn).   

Mary (Molly Quinn)

“Now that I’m back in the real world,” Mary tells two of her former sisters when they visit her in the same cafe where previously Frank and Benjamin had discussed the priesthood, the pain of humanity, and scepticism, “my time at the convent feels like a dream.” Even as Mary seeks an elusive connection with God that the Church failed to provide, Agnes challenges viewers to find the connection between its two narrative halves, both so very different in genre and tone (one oneiric and overblown, the other anchored and understated), yet both sharing some characters and locations, and linked by paradoxical flashbacks and flashforwards. If the nunnery is a hallowed, hermetic space, and the world beyond its walls more profane, nonetheless the same conflicts of faith and doubt, of hope and despair, of comedy and tragedy, of agony and ecstasy, are staged in either setting.

“God sees the truth, but waits,” says Frank to the congregated nuns in the film’s first half, expressly citing Tolstoy in his sermon on the patience required for salvation. In the second half, when Mary meets up with Paul some time after seeing his gig, she will tell him that she did not find his routine funny at the time, but “laughed later”. Reece’s film too defers its significances and satisfactions for its own afterlife, when the the final scene is over and the viewer is left to contemplate and conciliate its many ideas alone in the dark. Ultimately it is for us to sort the meat of the matter from the mere filling – even if that means that Agnes has already ended before we have a chance to collect our thoughts and to say our proper goodbyes. This strangely elliptical, deeply thoughtful take on nunsploitation wears the habit of its genre to cover over the trauma and tribulation underneath, while still leaving room for future rapture. Give it time to settle, and its rewards are rich.

strap: Mickey Reece’s feature divides itself between shrill nunsploitation tropes and a more earnestly meaty engagement with spiritual matters

© Anton Bitel