Sundance 2016: ‘Agnus Dei’ an exploration of rape that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors


Agnus Dei
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Written by Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial- based on the concept by Philippe Maynial

Anne Fontaine’s Agnus Dei is a quasi-tragic exploration of women at risk. Rectified by a woman drawn into chaos by duty and compassion, it’s always serious but never pretentious. It keeps the audience’s attention with the untold stories of how women are treated in wartime and how they must deal with the repercussions. In the aftermath of WWII, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is a young doctor for the French Red Cross in Warsaw who encounters a convent of nuns who have been raped by soldiers. The rapes have resulted in several pregnancies. The nuns are in shock and unable to care or adequately prepare for the pregnant amongst them. Their bodies are out of bounds, and to them, the property of God. They do not know themselves, and touch is a foreign concept. Much has been dramatized of the heroics or misdeeds that men commit during war. Largely left out of imagination and history are how women interact and cope with destruction during turbulent times. Women’s decisions in times of crisis have been silently pushed out of the bigger picture. Their perceived vulnerability and actual agency is a far more complicated concept than warrants them unjustly being lumped in with collateral damage. Based on a true story, Agnus Dei attends to the terrible consequences of rape with a knowing intelligence and sense of responsibility that these are not stories that usually get told.

Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) last premiered at Sundance with Adore, about best friends who fall in love with each other’s grown sons. The story is novel for the fact that the women aren’t punished for their acts- they merely know what will make them happy even if it incidentally shocks the rest of society. Recognizing the manifold motivations and personalities of women is one of Agnus Dei‘s most admirable qualities. Mathilde is a self-possessed woman who knows concisely why she can’t leave these the helpless nuns behind. Her life is completely separated from religion, but is driven by conscience and has reasons beyond men to feel fulfilled. Also at odds with the lives of the celibate sisters is the fact that Mathilde uses sex for relief. Her partner is also a doctor, but decidedly not a person who she wants to be with in the long term. Agnus Dei is thoroughly unconcerned with romance and the world of men after the atrocities of war. It’s a painful cinematic experience, but mind-expanding for exploring how women feel about their own bodies and the boundaries that are crossed by rapists and doctors. How people touch women, what is done about unwanted children, and how women care for others are all intently focused on with a detailed concern that isn’t saccharine at any juncture. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The movie does have quiet segways that almost stop the momentum of the narrative, but the story always picks back up.

Agnus Dei wraps us up in the shattered lives of women and how they are and are not able to help one another. It doesn’t show them all as saints, but doesn’t demonize them as sinners. They are hardest on themselves for letting circumstances get in the way, and are largely able to get along despite the cultural divides of language, geography, and tradition. Importantly, Mathilde is free of the moral burdens that the nuns place on themselves, but still faces the same dangers. In the midst of an environment where the threat of rape is not only pervasive but not policed in any real way, it deals positively with victimhood and recovery. Instead of salaciously dwelling on what has happened, Agnus Dei offers courage, empathy, and education as an antidote but not an absolute answer to sexual violence that transcends the time period.

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