Dispatch from Sundance: 'Agnus Dei'

A must-see film that quietly suggests a surprising answer to the problem of evil.
Dispatch from Sundance: 'Agnus Dei'
Image: Anna Wloch
'Agnus Dei'

One of the oldest refrains in the world is the theodicy question: how could a good God let bad things happen?

That question animates Agnus Dei, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday. But the film's answer is expansive, complex, and subtly subversive. Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovary) and led by an all-female cast, the movie tries to approach (but not fix) the repercussions of unspeakable cruelty with the quiet balm of beauty. It’s a must-see for CT readers.

Agnus Dei is set in 1945, amid the ruins of World War II. Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is a young French doctor working with the Red Cross in Poland. Through an unusual set of circumstances, she comes into contact with a convent of Polish nuns who, she discovers, are in advanced stages of pregnancy. Months earlier, a group of Russian soldiers had broken into the convent and raped the women repeatedly, staying for several days. The horror haunts them still, even while they have tried to regain their faith and practice their vocation. Full of shame, they’re convinced of the need to conceal their condition, lest they be shut down by their superiors. And yet the reminders linger in their own bodies and, nine months later, are about to arrive.

Mathilde isn't Catholic; over vodka one night, she tells her fellow doctor and sometime lover Samuel (who himself is Jewish) that her parents were staunch Communists, and she seems untroubled by her lack of faith. Late in the film, it becomes clear that Mathilde and Samuel, considered by some to be the unholy interlopers in a world of peace and piety, are in fact more aware of the implications of their own vocation as doctors than some of the women in the convent. ...

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