The Absolution of St. Agatha…
Darren Lynn Bousman, best known for directing three Saw films, has orchestrated quite a tale with the harrowing and often brutal St. Agatha, a period piece toying with the mores of its 1957 setting along with some familiar Christian themes of redemption and sin, but also of hypocrisy and greed.
The story follows child-bearing Mary, played beautifully by Sabrina Kern, who for reasons we do not know, will become the subject of torture and isolation by a small convent of nuns who persuaded the young mother-to-be that they would help the destitute Mary with food, shelter, and childbirth. In exchange, Mary would adopt the roles of a nun, which unlike the normal roles of a housewife at the time, include monotonous chores and service to Him. There are other pregnant women in the house with similar stories and who are woefully dependent on the services of the house.
What of course is a promise of salvation tortuously twists into chaos, as our group of nuns are less Jesus and more Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale. The matriarch “Mother Superior” (a tremendous performance by Carolyn Hennessy) is most insidious with her intentions not only for Mary, but for the others who reside in the home and are living with uncertain fates.
Thematically there is much to unpack, but the names of our heroine serve as the richest subtext. The obvious symbolism to Mary is her connection to the Virgin Mary (although our protagonist has no immaculate conception as she is seen having sex with her boyfriend). Indeed, our Mary is “sinful,” a fact compounded by the reality that her child will be a bastard in a world that sees single mothers as second-class citizens. Mother Superior is practically gleeful to throw this in Mary’s face, telling her that “You don’t deserve the name.” So as part of her new residence, Mary will be forced (ahem…tortured) to adopt a new name: Agatha.
The name Agatha only hntensifies the Christian subtext. Agatha of Sicily, who lived during the reign of Emperor Decius of Rome and his campaign to persecute and kill Christians, is one of the more famous examples of virgin martyrdom. Facing certain torture and death, Agatha only reaffirmed her faith and messaging to other Christians. Her demise, as described by the New Catholic Encyclopedia, is grueling: Legend alleges that she was sent to a brothel to induce her to repudiate her faith. After the removal of her breasts, the Apostle Peter is supposed to have appeared and cured her; but the next day she died in prison of new cruelties.
It is this history that has a clear connection to Mary, now Agatha, as she will endure similar tortures (not the removal of breasts, thank the Lord!). The story of St. Agatha and her work, however, is re-purposed by Mother Superior for her own exploits and power. Our hope is that the “New Agatha” will not meet the same fate as her saintly counterpart.
But any notion of free will is lost for Agatha and the other pregnant women, as they are subjected to isolation and torture. To state why would only spoil the fun and the suspense. We know they will somehow work together to seek “salvation,” and it’s that process that makes this film strong, even if it can be at times difficult to watch. Bousman’s use of flashbacks to tell Mary’s true story serve the viewer excellent narrative clues to her mysterious life. And with excellent performances by the ensemble cast, St.Agatha is certain to delight horror fans, especially those attracted to the sub-genre of religious exploitation.
St Agatha is in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD on February 8, 2019.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality