Film Review: The Innocents (Les Innocentes)

Knocked-Up Nuns Make For A Thorny Historical Drama

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
The Innocents
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit this ain’t.
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The Innocents has been used as a movie title a number of times, most famously in the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ chilling ghost story The Turn of the Screw starring Deborah Kerr. But 2016’s The Innocents, by French writer/director/actor Anne Fontaine (Gemma Bovery, Coco Before Chanel, How I Killed My Father), is a much different sort of film, concentrating on a far more earthly form of horror.

Based on a suitably shocking true story, the film takes us to 1945 Poland where World War II has basically ground to a halt. All that’s left is to mop up the wounded soldiers and fret about what comes next. Here we meet a taciturn, nose-to-the-grindstone doctor with the French Red Cross named Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage,
Breathe). She’s based in Warsaw and spends her days assisting her male counterparts, treating the city’s damaged and dying. One day she’s visited by a headstrong young nun named Maria (Agata Buzek, Redemption) begging for help. Mathilde doesn’t speak Polish and isn’t allowed to leave her international compound. But Maria plants herself outside the hospital, praying, and Mathilde is swayed.

Arriving at the Benedictine convent to which Maria belongs, Mathilide is surprised to find her patient is a young, pregnant novice. In great pain. due to a breech birth, the woman is in danger of dying. Mathilde operates quickly, saving the lives of mother and child. Despite the efforts of the secretive convent and its tightlipped abbess (Agata Kulesza,
Ida), it soon becomes clear to the newcomer that the entire order has been profoundly traumatized. First, the isolated Catholic nuns was persecuted by the Germans. Then they faced even worse at the hands of their “liberators,” the Russians, who subjected these innocent women to a series of brutal sexual attacks. Seven of the nuns are now pregnant as a result. Needless to say, none of them knows what to do.

At the urging of the rebellious and surprisingly worldly Sister Maria and the feminist-minded Dr. Beaulieu, the convent’s abbess agrees to let the nuns receive medical help—but only if Mathilde offers it. The women are terrified that their secret shame might get out. Neither their conservative countrymen nor the newly Communist government are likely to look kindly on a bunch of de-virginized nuns. More than likely, the community would drive them all out and shut down the order for its perceived sins. At considerable risk to herself, Mathilde agrees to keep the secret and to look after the women until they give birth.

Mathilde isn’t Catholic; in fact, her parents were Communists. But she soon finds herself contemplating questions of faith and obedience. The good doctor’s job is made harder by the fact that the nuns—despite what has happened to them—are still bound by their vows of chastity. Their bodies cannot be seen or touched, even by a doctor. “Can’t we set God aside while I examine them?” asks Mathilde in mounting frustration. But even in these trying circumstances, setting God aside isn’t so easy.

That’s not to say that the nuns aren’t having their own crises. Some of the younger nuns, unsurprisingly, are questioning the wisdom and mercy of a God who allowed his “brides” to be raped by the Russian Army. Some are rejecting these children outright as “punishments” from the Lord. One may even be experiencing romantic feelings for her impregnator. It is, to say the least, a thinker of a situation.

Even outside the confines of the convent, the film finds the uncertainty and ambiguity of the time. In one delicately balanced emotional sequence, Mathilde goes out for a night on the town with coworker (Vincent Macaigne) after a hard day in the operating room. He flirts with her, dances with her, then offhandedly mentions the murder of his Jewish family back in France. It’s all in one breath, and it hardly counts as a mood change. Life and death are so commingled at the end of the devastating war that no one can seem to separate the two any more.

Fontaine deals with this all in a solemn and restrained manner. There are not a lot of narrative twists and turns to be had. This is a story of a bad situation that isn’t easily “fixed.” An early sequence in which Mathilde is nearly raped by a Russian soldier and suddenly experiences an increased sympathy for the nuns’ plight is a bit too narratively convenient, but it’s still impactful. And though it sounds like a dark and dreary tale,
The Innocents is more about hope, change and the prospects for the future. As it goes on, the film’s title starts to refer less to the unworldy nuns and more to their offspring. “Faith is 24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope,” points out Sister Maria. The gradual weakening of the abbess’ rigid stranglehold on the convent signals a possible future in which religious and political authority might hold less of a sway over Europe’s affairs. At the same time, the impending births of some seven new souls give hope that life goes on, even in the wake of the horror and tragedy of war. Despite its true-life origins, the film clearly aims to be an allegory about the human race’s ability to cope with, respond to and recover from evil.

With its monochromatic nuns, frostbitten forests and candlelit cloisters,
The Innocents is a handsome, thoughtful examination of horror and hope. Fontaine’s slow pace, formal tone and light editorial touch show the filmmaker isn’t in any particular hurry to deliver hard morality lessons. Some viewers may find this mutes her ability to make good on a strong emotional and spiritual payoff at the end. Maybe Fontaine doesn’t commit hard enough to one particular viewpoint, leaving viewers to suss it out for themselves. Even so, audiences are likely to forgive the sin and appreciate the film for its painterly palette, its sharp acting and its powerful historical provenance.
The Innocents

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