It’s safe to say that any movie taking place in Poland during 1945 isn’t exactly going to be a happy or uplifting story. After all, the events surrounding the events of World War II are among the darkest chapter in all of human history. The atrocities didn’t just end after the fall of Berlin and the death of Adolf Hitler; food was scarce, people were desperate, and the aftermath would lead to a continent divided as the Soviet Union seized territory across the region. The new film from Anne Fontaine, The Innocents, tries to find some glimmer of hope and humanity in the aftermath of the war, focusing on a covenant of nuns that have become pregnant following their brutal rape at the hands of the Soviet forces who controlled Poland falling the demise of the Third Reich. It’s a film that is all at once a heartbreaking drama, a deeply moving examination of faith, and a condemnation of unwavering dogma in the face of the most extreme circumstances.
Working as a doctor for the French Red Cross, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) isn’t a religious person, raised by a working class family of Communists. One evening, Mathilde is frantically summoned to a local convent by a nun that demands only a French doctor see another ailing nun. Upon arriving, Mathilde is shocked to discover a young nun, Zofia (Anna Próchniak), in the midst of childbirth. After helping the young girl give birth, Mathilde is informed by the convent’s leader, Mother Mère Abesse (Agata Kulesza), that a number of the nuns are pregnant following a mass sexual assault by the Soviet soldiers. Working in secret from her supervisor Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), with whom she sometimes sleeps with, Mathilde provides medical aid to the pregnant nuns. The newborn children are found homes by Mother Mère, and the convent is able to keep up appearances and avoid any potential shame in their community. But the horrific nature of the crimes committed upon them and the deceitful manner with which it must be covered up causes a crisis of faith for one nun, Maria (Agata Buzek). Yet in these trying moments not everything is exactly how it seems.
The Innocents is a multi-layered moral dilemma as crafted by screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, and director Anne Fontaine (based on a story by Phillipe Maynial). On one hand, there’s the dilemma for Mathilde in setting aside her own apathy and condescension towards matters of faith while still maintaining her duties as a doctor. Lou de Laâge gives a strong performance that captures all of these aspects of the character and her dilemma, often without having to say a single word. Meanwhile, the nuns of the convent are dealing with a much more complex moral quandary. Aside from the personal struggle of dealing with sexual assault, these are women who live in fear of being shamed and shunned by their community for a crime that committed upon them. They also live in fear of damnation, as if their assault has left them in violation of their vow of celibacy. Of all the moral dilemmas presented in the film, none is as shocking and unsettling as the one that faces Mother Abesse, one that is best left unspoiled. What it comes down to is the fact that Mother Abesse adheres to her religious dogma despite its personal consequences.
Visually, The Innocents is presented in a very understated manner, which is not say that the cinematography by Caroline Champetier isn’t always in service of its story – it is. The colors are muted and cold like Polish winter, and the camera slowly glides when following its subjects as if it’s an ethereal eye. Traversing the corridors of the convent Fontaine and Champetier craft a collection of eloquent compositions that reflect the fraught nature of its characters in a time when humanity seemed on the brink of collapse.
The events that unfold in The Innocents are heartbreaking in their content and striking in their execution. It’s not often that a film can juggle so many various aspects of a moral, religious, and personal dilemma and not feel like it has left anything underserved, but that’s exactly what Anne Fontaine does with The Innocents. Despite all of its tragedy, there’s still a silver lining attached to its ending. In the end, The Innocents is really about trying to retain that grip on humanity and compassion in the most grotesque of circumstances. Some succeed, some fail, because whether they’re donning a nun’s veil or a doctor’s stethoscope, they’re just flawed humans trying to make the most of whatever situation they’ve been placed in. Faith can be lost and restored, our humanity cannot.
The Innocents opens on July 1, 2016 at The Landmark in West L.A. and July 8, 2016 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Edwards Westpark 8 in Orange County.