Agnus Dei is a lovely WWII drama about a French Red Cross nurse, Mathilde, who discovers a cloister of nuns who were raped roughly nine months earlier by German and Soviet troops. Many of the nuns are pregnant, and they need a doctor’s help delivering the babies. Their situation is causing them a crisis of faith. Interacting with them causes the nurse to reconsider her own faith in life, in herself, in hope—she is an atheist—and the kind of person she should be in the world.
As you might imagine, Agnus Dei is a quiet, serious, genuinely sentimental film. It’s about nuns who have been raped and who give birth, after all. It’s also a very funny film. There’s a sardonic, sarcastic verbal humor featured throughout. (Though it is in French, it translates well into English subtitles.) The humor is necessary and meaningful. As one nun, Maria, says to the Mathilde at one point, “Behind all joy, there is the cross.” She’s saying that heartache is always part of faith, but it implies the inverse as well – leading in front of every trial is all joy. Joy and sorrow go together.
Agnus Dei shines as it explores the crisis of faith the nuns are living through. There are many conversations between the nuns and Mathilde about what faith is and how they are able to hold onto it in the face of what has happened to them. “How could God let this happen?” the film asks. Mathilde learns from the nuns that faith is more complicated than vapid belief. “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and a minute of hope,” Sr. Maria tells Mathilde. This line elicited laughter from a large portion of the Sundance audience. From some of us who know the tremulous truth of that statement, it elicited tears.
This search for hope to hold onto in the face of evil is depicted by Agnus Dei’s cinematography as well. As director Anne Fontaine told the premiere’s audience in the post-screening Q&A, she and her cinematographer kept light sources just out of the frame as often as possible. This is meant to suggest that hope and faith is there just beyond where the characters are standing if only they’d turn and head in that direction. There is great truth in that lighting choice as well.
We have many WWII films. Filmmakers the world over have long used the event to explore countless aspects of human existence. They are often about violence and justice and freedom. Sometimes they are about the problem of evil and how we should respond. Rarely are they about Christian faith and how it is tried by the kind of evil we see in war and what worth Christian faith is in a world in which evil like this is common. Watch Agnus Dei alongside Of Gods and Men and Ida and the best episodes of MASH.