Hope and horror are commingled to quietly moving effect in “Agnus Dei,” a restrained but cumulatively powerful French-Polish drama about the various crises of faith that emerge when a house of God is ravaged by war. Based on the little-known case of the French Red Cross doctor Madeleine Pauliac and the convent to which she ministered following the end of WWII, director Anne Fontaine’s finest film in years may well be described in festival shorthand as “that pregnant-nuns movie,” but is notable for the tact, intelligence and fine-grained character detail with which it examines every moral crevice of an unthinkable scenario. Although less starry than several of her recent efforts (“Gemma Bovery,” “Adore,” “Coco Before Chanel”), this classy international co-production should nonetheless receive a solid embrace from the global arthouse market.
The hushed solemnity with which Fontaine dramatized a patently ridiculous mom-swap scenario in “Adore” (which premiered at Sundance 2013 as “Two Mothers”) turns out to be a much more intuitive fit for the cloistered setting of “Agnus Dei,” which unfolds primarily in a Polish convent in December 1945. On initial glance, it would seem that this place, with its enclosed courtyard and unadorned white walls, has stood as a refuge from the terrors of the German occupation. But the painful truth emerges slowly as French doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a fictionalized stand-in for Pauliac, reluctantly agrees to a nun’s plea that she visit the convent on an urgent matter. When she arrives, she finds one of the younger sisters in labor and promptly delivers the baby via C-section.
The silence that attends this harrowing scene — with no one offering an explanation for the extraordinary circumstances — is so profound that you may wonder, if only for a moment, whether the child was immaculately conceived. The terrible truth of the situation could hardly be less divine: As the strict Rev. Mother (Agata Kulesza) and the similarly rigid Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) eventually divulge, Soviet soldiers entering Poland several months earlier forced their way into the monastery and proceeded to have their way with the nuns — an unspeakable violation that left seven of them pregnant. Now that Mathilde knows their secret, most of the nuns are hoping she will stay, administer medical care and help deliver the babies, which Rev. Mother will arrange to have adopted, so as to prevent the convent’s great shame from coming to light.
Indeed, the corrosive nature of shame — particularly in a situation where it is entirely undeserved — is one of the key themes of Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial’s layered screenplay, which takes its time exploring an impossible situation from every possible moral, spiritual and institutional angle. In the process, the sisters — despite wearing identical habits and seeming to radiate the same stiff severity — emerge as individuals with their own unique feelings, convictions, personal histories and varying degrees of faith. One giggles reflexively when Mathilde tries to examine her; another cowers in fear, convinced that there lies the way of damnation. Still another declares that what happened to the convent has destroyed her belief in God forever, only to rediscover it under the most unexpected of circumstances.
Forging an unexpected alliance with Mathilde is Sister Maria, in many ways the wisest and most stable figure in the convent. Tellingly, her own relatively worldly past — she wasn’t a virgin when she took her vow of chastity — has equipped her to deal with the trauma better than the own nuns. By contrast, Rev. Mother icily regards the secular young doctor as a necessary evil, especially when Mathilde brings along a more experienced male colleague, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne, excellent), to help with the deliveries, and insists on maintaining appearances at all costs. Stubborn, judgmental and short-sighted though she may be, the elder nun is clearly aware that a public scandal of this magnitude would destroy what little respect or authority the Church still commands, making “Agnus Dei” very much a movie about the weakening grip of religious institutions in turbulent times and amid changing regimes.
All the more remarkable, then, that Fontaine’s film manages to respect faith even though it refuses to partake of it, and its dramatic progress is often defined by the push-pull of its characters’ opposing worldviews. Mathilde comes to respect that many of the nuns continue to uphold their beliefs, even when it would appear that God has abandoned them; for their part, the nuns learn to appreciate the virtues of dishonesty when the quick-thinking Mathilde contrives an excuse to keep another troupe of Russian soldiers at bay. Meanwhile, she carries on a friendly, not-strictly-professional relationship with Samuel, who, with his grim awareness of how few of his fellow Jews remain in Europe, offers his own mordant perspective on the proceedings.
Shot in a deliberately drab, muted palette perfectly suited to the convent’s plain-looking environs, “Agnus Dei” in some ways recalls “Of Gods and Men” (2010), Xavier Beauvois’ magisterial tragedy about Trappist monks coming under siege from Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria. Although less austere and ultimately more sentimental, with a faint streak of humor that occasionally breaks its grave surface, Fontaine’s film (which might have been titled “Of Gods and Women”) unfolds at a revealingly slow pace and with an appreciable sense of mystery; it’s in no hurry to reveal the awful particulars of what the nuns have seen and endured, or the challenging new directions in which their experience might lead them. Whether the effect strikes you as artfully withholding or meticulously sanitized (the moving strains of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” arrive right on cue), what the picture leaves us with is a fresh understanding of our capacity to respond to suffering with good or evil, and to find new definitions of grace and vocation.
De Laage, best known for her work in Melanie Laurent’s “Breathe,” anchors the drama with a calm and assurance that rarely waver, even when her character is forced to act under the most trying of circumstances; Buzek is no less impressive, her icy veneer thawing by expertly controlled degrees. But the film’s standout turn comes, unsurprisingly, from Kulesza; so riveting as a cynical, hard-drinking, atheist ex-prosecutor in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” she brings the same steely edge to her domineering Rev. Mother, a woman who ostensibly hails from the opposite end of the moral and religious spectrum. In both performances, the actress illuminates the inner life of a misguided authority figure with equal parts cruelty and compassion.