Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
It’s getting hard to find a World War II era story that hasn’t been told and retold again. Kudos are due to Anne Fontaine for not only finding a tale not often seen, but imbuing it with a feminine perspective so often erased from wartime narratives. For as much trauma and violence the women of “Agnus Dei” have witnessed, theirs is a story of survival and rebuilding from ruins. Theirs is a history worth remembering.
Months after the end of WWII, a French Red Cross nurse Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is approached by a Polish nun begging for someone to treat someone at her convent. After she refuses to leave, the nurse decides to drive her back and check the ailing patient. She discovers the young woman is giving birth and that many of the sisters are rape survivors from the war hiding their pregnancies in fear that the Catholic Church would learn of their predicament. Mathilde must make the decision of whether to covertly treat the women or return to her duties with retreating French troops.
It’s rare to find a movie celebrating sisterhood so openly. That sentiment is not just for the nuns either, but with the communist atheist woman of the world who empathizes with their plight and helps them. The price of her sacrifice is shown in various ways, including the trouble she has with her relationship to the doctor she is seeing, her work at the hospital and the peril of traveling alone with soldiers still patrolling the streets. That last one in particular is one of the more harrowing insights to being a woman trying to do the right thing.
Director Anne Fontaine channels a Bergman touch in her effective use of space between her actors. Characters in the convent are so carefully placed in front of the camera that it gives a sense of uneasy stillness and intensity. In one whispered conversation between the nurse and an elder nun, their faces are almost placed in “Persona”-like poses. They share the same goal to save the women and deliver their babies, but they are of two minds of how to accomplish that. When Mathilde is working in the Red Cross, the camera is as busy as she is, moving from room-to-room and keeping pace in the hectic space. For most of the movie, the convent is cold, its colors dour. By the time the film ends in spring, it appears as if almost everything in the frame has been reupholstered. Gone is the sad darkness; there’s light shining from almost every face that was once tear-stained.
But composition isn’t the only striking element of “Agnus Dei.” The film also plays as a mediation on faith in times of crisis. It’s not so much obsessed with religious dogma, but of the way religion can be used as a means of comfort. But it’s very possible to lose one’s faith in dark times and see the tragedy around you as evidence of the lack of a greater power. The nuns at the convent are in various stages of coping, from denial to anger, and their struggle to support each other is its own form of faith in practice. The nuanced depiction of religious life deserves more exploration, and “Agnus Dei” accomplishes this by contrasting the several experiences of its characters.
We’ve held up many wartime heroes from this era, and this unsung heroine deserves to be celebrated among them. “Agnus Dei” is a song for communion that asks God to take away the sins of the world and to give parishioners mercy and peace. We see the nuns pray many times, even the ones questioning their faith hold steadfast to rituals. They look to move past the terror the war brought, and with the help of a compassionate outsider, are able to find peace. “Agnus Dei” is a lovely ode to healing through solidarity.