Con­fronting test of women’s faith

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

A nun in full habit lies on a bed writhing and scream­ing. She’s push­ing out a baby. Two other nuns, also fully at­tired, are help­ing her with the de­liv­ery. It’s not a Monty Python clip but one of the dis­tress­ing yet also beau­ti­ful scenes from French drama The In­no­cents.

It’s all the more con­fronting be­cause based on real events.

The film opens with a group of nuns and nuns-to-be — four of the women are novices in white veils — singing prayers in a large, oth­er­wise empty, cold stone room. We see their faces up close. Most are young. Then we no­tice one who isn’t singing. Then we, like she and the oth­ers, hear the screams com­ing from some­where nearby.

The nun who isn’t singing leaves her sis­ters and heads out of the build­ing into a snow-cov­ered, wooded land­scape. It’s Poland, De­cem­ber 1945, a few months af­ter the end of World War II. The fight­ing may be over but, for some, this doesn’t mean the end of fear.

Sis­ter Maria (Pol­ish ac­tress Agata Buzek) heads to a French Red Cross Hospi­tal where doc­tors are patching up the re­main­ing French troops and ship­ping them out of Soviet-con­trolled Poland.

She asks a young doc­tor, Mathilde Beaulieu (French ac­tress Lou de Laage), for help. She is re­fused un­til the doc­tor sees her a bit later, pray­ing out­side in the snow. She agrees to go with her to the Bene­dic­tine con­vent.

Here we come face-to-face with one of the par­tic­u­lar hor­rors of the fi­nal months of the war. The scream­ing woman in the con­vent is a nun who was raped by Rus­sian sol­diers. She’s about to have her baby.

And she’s not the only one. The Rus­sians came to the con­vent three times. Seven of the sis­ters are preg­nant. The doc­tor knows she must help.

This sets up an ab­sorb­ing, some­times har­row­ing ex­plo­ration of ques­tions of faith and non-faith, of still raw wounds be­tween peo­ple from dif­fer­ent parts of Europe and, most of all, the trauma and shame of rape.

It’s telling that the word rape isn’t used by the nuns. They feel a dev­as­ta­tion that while unique to their re­li­gious be­lief is far from un­com­mon. There are still times when a woman is raped and there are ques­tions or in­sin­u­a­tions about what she did to en­cour­age it.

“It might seem im­pos­si­ble to the out­side world,’’ Sis­ter Maria tells the doc­tor, ex­plain­ing why the nuns feel they have wronged, “but we must still re­spect our vow of chastity.” The de- it’s filed women, obe­di­ent to their strict mother su­pe­rior, don’t want to be seen un­clothed or touched by oth­ers.

“Can’t we set God aside while I ex­am­ine them?” Dr Beaulieu asks in kind ex­as­per­a­tion. Sis­ter Maria replies, “You don’t put God aside.”

What fol­lows is a bril­liant in­ves­ti­ga­tion of faith. Some of the nuns re­spond badly to their sit­u­a­tion.

“This life that has been forced into me,’’ one says, “what does he ex­pect me to do with it?” By he she means God. Oth­ers see it dif­fer­ently, but this too shakes their faith.

Sis­ter Maria, we learn, had a life be­fore she com­mit­ted to the or­der. Faith, she says, is “24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope”.

Above them all is the mother su­pe­rior (Pol­ish ac­tress Agata Kulesza, who in Pawel Paw­likowski’s Os­car-win­ning Ida was a young woman con­sid­er­ing be­com­ing a nun). “She’s our mother,” one nun says. “We must obey her.” She is the ul­ti­mate with­holder of the truth — she thinks re­port­ing what the Rus­sians did, and even ac­knowl­edg­ing their rape-pro­duced ba­bies, would see the con­vent shut down — and this leads her to do some­thing that should never be done in the name of any god. The abbess was vi­o­lated, too, but she re­fuses med­i­cal help. She’d rather put up with her or­deal.

The beau­ti­ful, non-be­liev­ing doc­tor be­comes closer to the clois­tered nuns. A scene where she is sur­rounded by them, in grat­i­tude, is gor­geous. An­other, where she is stopped on the road by Rus­sian troops, is shock­ing.

Her lover is an­other doc­tor, Sa­muel (Vin­cent Ma­caigne). When she asks him to help, it raises semi-taboos for the nuns and for him. He is a man. He is Jewish. They are Pol­ish. “Yes, there are some of us left,” he says.

The In­no­cents is di­rected and co-writ­ten by Anne Fon­taine ( Coco Be­fore Chanel and Gemma Bovery). The haunt­ing cam­er­a­work is by Caro­line Cham­petier, who filmed Leos Carax’s bizarre, bril­liant fan­tasy drama Holy Mo­tors (2012), in which Kylie Minogue rocks.

The cast is pow­er­ful. Buzek, the ac­tress daugh­ter of for­mer Pol­ish prime min­is­ter Jerzy Buzek, and de Laage bring to the nun and the doc­tor the un­cer­tain­ties ev­ery hu­man has. The di­rec­tor de­scribes Buzek as “Poland’s Cate Blanchett”, which is high and de­served praise.

Fon­taine’s in­spi­ra­tion was the diaries of real Red Cross doc­tor Madeleine Pau­liac, who worked in War­saw af­ter the war. A FrenchBel­gian-Pol­ish co-pro­duc­tion, the film was shot in Poland.

The re­sult is a slow, of­ten quiet film, par­tic­u­larly at the start. I like that. But even if you usu­ally pre­fer more pace in the sto­ry­telling, I rec­om­mend you keep watch­ing. It builds to some­thing quite re­mark­able. And it hap­pened in liv­ing mem­ory.

Louu de Laage, left, in n The In­no­cents

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