"Agnes of God" begins with a dark prospect of a convent: whispered rosaries, screaming, a great deal of high-pitched violin sawing, and buckets of blood; and as the credits roll, the audience gets to play "What is wrong with this picture?" You watch all this, and you immediately think: What a great idea -- subvert this pretentious Broadway blatherfest by playing it Gothic. Then the director's credit introduces the name Norman Jewison. And as Count Floyd would say, that's really scary. Off we go, into the kind of windy, ponderous hybrid that Jewison has lately taken to pioneering -- the whodunit of ideas.

Agnes (Meg Tilly) is a nun who, apparently, has not only gotten pregnant, but garroted the child with its umbilical cord. The court-appointed shrink, Dr. Livingston (Jane Fonda), thinks Agnes is deeply disturbed; the mother superior (Anne Bancroft) thinks she's an innocent, maybe the last, and suggests that the baby may have been miraculously conceived.

Saint or psychopath?

The movie mulls over this nutshell for an hour or so, as Livingston takes up the cudgel for Science and Mother Miriam spits back Faith. Along the way come the obligatory revelations about Agnes (how her mother mutilated her, and so forth), leading up to the climax, in which we finally learn who dun it.

Now, I won't spoil "Agnes of God" by telling you that Colonel Mustard did it in the kitchen with a carrot peeler, but that's the problem with a whodunit: If you knew whether Agnes had miraculously conceived a child, or that she (and not one of the other nuns) was the murderer, you'd have no reason to sit through all the back and forth about Science and Faith. Worse, while the play kept the resolution of the debate open-ended, Jewison stuffs the themes into his structure. In the end, it's either Science or Faith, which makes the loser seem like a straw man.

It follows that "Agnes of God" offers little besides its jury-rigged suspense. Oh, there are oodles of cigarette jokes -- Livingston is a chain smoker, Mother Miriam a reformed one -- till you wonder why the acknowledgment to Benson & Hedges in the closing credits didn't come above the title. Speaking of habits, the ill-used Bancroft is pigeonholed in the hopelessly cliche'd role of a profane nun. (A typical ho-ho: "I don't think a communion wafer has the recommended daily allowance of anything.") Fonda delivers a nervous, studied performance that screams "I care! I care!" but seems awfully cold for all of that. And while Tilly brings the clean presence of an Ivory Snow girl to the role, she's trying to play both God's child and a fruitcake, and the result is simply vague.

The cinematography (by the legendary Sven Nyqvist) is similarly muzzy, a seesaw between blues and golds, with hardly a crisp image in the bunch; he adds some Bergmanesque doves, which symbolize something or other (sex, presumably). Georges Delerue's music, with its homages to horror movies, is just plain wrong for the movie's style.

Movies based on plays, dramas of ideas, and whodunits tend to be losers, so why Jewison is so hellbent for them (his last was "A Soldier's Story") is anyone's guess. He tries to open things up by shooting scenes outside, adding some cows and choleric nuns, and contributing a "Verdict"-style conspiracy between Church and state, but his objective style ends up closing off the mystery at its heart. And he's altogether too reverential to the play, which is, after all, nothing better than a bargain-basement "Equus." What "Agnes of God" needed was a director like David "Scanners" Cronenberg, the Bergman of blood, who would compose a fantasia upon it, drag it down to its B-movie roots. Now there's a man who would know how to open up a play -- he'd blow it up. Kaboom! Agnes of God, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains violence, profanity and sexual themes.