Agnus Dei
By William Aughtry With on February 09, 2016

Agnus Dei (or Les Innocentes, as it was originally titled) is a film spilling over with beauty. It tells the tale of a young French Red Cross doctor who finds herself in Poland at the tail end of the Second World War. One day her normal duties are interrupted by a nun from a local convent who has come to her with an urgent request—there is a pregnant woman in the convent’s care who is in desperate need of her medical expertise. As is so often the case, things are not as simple as they seem at first and soon our young hero finds herself caring for this group of sisters on a regular basis. The film’s plot is compelling but in truth it often takes a backseat to its reflective tone. Though the movie is both compelling and suspenseful at times it is, at its core, a meditation on how faith in that which is beautiful often clashes with a world full of terror. Our young doctor has long conversations with Sister Maria, a woman who spent her life drinking deeply of the world’s many pleasures before finding her heart’s true joys in the walls of the Church. Through their conversations the audience is invited to reflect on both faith and doubt not as two diametrically opposed forces but as an inseparable coupling. “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope,” Maria tells her new friend at one point in the film. After the film’s Sundance premiere I was able to ask a question of its director, Anne Fontaine. I tried to ask about her use of the hours of prayer in the film’s structure but because of both the distance between us and our lack of a shared mother tongue, she replied with an answer that was unrelated but altogether better than I could have hoped for. Instead of speaking to her collaboration with actual nuns (which I was curious about), she spoke of her relationship with what is for many directors their most cherished collaborator—the cinematographer (in this case, Caroline Champetier). She told me that in choosing the look for the film they had spent a lot of time studying iconography and other religious art. Then she said something I’ll never forget—she talked about how they always framed a strong light source just outside of the frame so that it bled into the scene but one could not see its full force or even its origin. In so doing, she said, we were trying to portray hope as that which is always at the edges of both life and the screen. The light was just out of our view but its effects were undeniable. To me this served as a perfect metaphor for the film but also for the life of faith—a world often covered in shadows is the perfect canvas for even the smallest amount of light. That single minute of hope is made all the more beautiful by the preceding twenty-four hours of doubt. The film is not without its criticisms of the religious life (nor, for that matter, of the wholly secular one) but it seems absolutely sure that the world is more beautiful when hope is allowed to have a place in our world, even if it’s just slightly off screen.

About the Author: William Aughtry
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