Director: Anne Fontaine
15 | 1h 55min | Drama | 11 November 2016 (UK)
Despite its wintry setting and grim subject matter director: Anne Fontaine’s intelligent and moving drama The Innocents –based on actual documented events- gradually blossoms from its chilly, early scenes into a quietly uplifting tale of female solidarity. It bears more than a few similarities to Pawel Pawlikowski ‘s acclaimed drama Ida from 2013; both films feature nuns, a stark Polish rural setting, and explore crises of faith. Both films have as their backdrop a dark, event-filled period of Polish history. Both are deserving of high praise, though The Innocents is undeniably the more straightforward piece.
The setting is a ravaged, snowy Eastern Poland in 1945 under Soviet occupation, where young French doctor Mathilde (a quietly intelligent and determined turn from Lou de Laåge) is serving with the Red Cross on a mission to treat Second World War survivors in Poland. Talented and beautiful, it is no surprise that the senior doctor, the idiosyncratic Pascal, is besotted with her, even if he affects a casual attitude. The Red Cross mission is nearing its end though, and Mathilde seems content to move on to the next war zone. But then a distressed nun from the local convent appears at the clinic one night seeking medical help, though she won’t say why.
Wary but still determined to help, Mathilde allows herself to be brought to the convent, where 30 Benedictine nuns have been living, seemingly cut off from the world both by the ravages of war and their own deep faith. The semi-ruined and gloomy convent is a striking gothic location, seemingly symbolic of the cold, miserable wreck that Poland has become, the tiny nation having been a battleground of imperial ambitions and genocide for decades. Soviet ‘liberation’ has been anything but, with drunken, lawless soldiers and ideologically-driven commissars wandering the nearby forests, and Mathilde’s journey to the convent involves passing by crowds of homeless orphans. But inside the convent, she finds a very different war going on.
To her shock, Mathilde discovers that several of the nuns are due to give birth, with the breech birth scenario affecting one young nun being the reason Mathilde was called in. The cause of the pregnancies is deeply disturbing: as told to her by the hushed and watchful Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), the nuns were all raped by gangs of Soviet soldiers once the area was liberated. The assault has a double agony, aside from the grotesque physical violation (which we are told lasted several days; truly unimaginable), the ordeal left the chastity-sworn nuns to try somehow to reconcile their faith with both their pregnancies and the shattering of their vows.
A believer in medical science and a committed communist, Mathilde’s decision to stay and help the nuns give birth whist keeping their secret from the outside world (to avoid shame) seems certain to result in a clash between faith and science. And to an extent, that does happen, as the nuns refusal to expose themselves or immediately agree to certain medications and procedures proves frustrating. The tension between Maria and the nuns, and the ever-present risk of discovery by the outside world, gives the film plenty of edge in the middle sections. But over time Mathilde and the nuns start to bond, and a well-drawn relationship based on more universal values starts to emerge, particularly that between Mathilde and Sister Maria, with Maria becoming an increasingly intriguing and open character the longer the film runs on.
Initially severe in appearance and demeanour, and suspicious of Mathilde’s presence, over time Maria’s compassion for her sisters and a surprising sense of humour start to win over the doctor, as well as giving her an ally against the uncompromising and ruthless Abbess. Interestingly, Maria reveals she joined the convent later in life than many, and has known things like the “touch of a man”. This presumably gives her the ability to bridge the two worlds, so to speak. The film gives enough space for several quiet but meaningful moments between the two similarly aged women, and overall the faith of Maria and the nuns is treated with a great degree of respect (though one character, somewhat inevitably, starts to use faith to justify extreme measures). Mathilde herself, despite presumably having never picked up a bible or sung a hymn for years, is clearly deeply moved by how these sisters rely not just on prayer, song and self-denial to survive in such a place- but each other. The longer the film runs, the more Fontaine shows us moments where we see the Sisters showing care for each other in the margins of their lives of piety, whether a hug or the placing of a hand on a shoulder. If there is a faith the film promotes, it is in the faith that you can survive the deepest nightmare if you can just reach out to your fellow human over class and religious lines.