Confronting test of women’s faith
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