THE INNOCENTS, drama, rated PG-13, in Polish, Russian, and French with subtitles, The Screen,
In this tense and troubling drama, French director Anne Fontaine
takes a powerful look at a documented horror from the immediate aftermath of World War II, when a remote Polish convent was invaded by occupying Soviet troops who repeatedly raped the nuns, leaving many of them pregnant. The story is drawn from the memoirs of a young French Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac.
In the movie she is Mathilde (Lou de Laâge, We begin with screams echoing through the bleak stone halls of the convent, and a young nun sneaking out and running through the woods to the nearest town to find a doctor — “Not Polish or Russian,” she insists to the band of ragamuffins from whom she asks directions.
In a chaotic makeshift Red Cross hospital she encounters Mathilde, and begs her for help. Mathilde gently turns her away. But when, hours later, she sees the nun kneeling outside in the snow in prayer, she relents, accompanies her back, hears the horror story, and delivers a baby.
The timing of the atrocity and its aftermath means that a lot of babies will be coming in a concentrated period of time. Mathilde’s visits to the nunnery are clandestine, on both sides. She must sneak away from her duties at the Red Cross, and the Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza, )is sternly suspicious of any outside interference in these convent matters. Exposure of their situation, she fears, could result in disgrace and a closing of the place by the authorities. On top of that, some of the nuns are too hysterical with shame and fear to allow any examination of their bodies.
This is a story of choices and the absence of choice, of fundamentalist conviction and superstition, and the nightmare of physical abuse, consequences, and natural laws. Mathilde’s primary contact and ally at the convent is Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), a worldly nun with a history of life experience before taking her vows, and even more essentially, a command of French. When, after delivering the first baby, Mathilde says she’ll come back the next day to check on the mother and baby, Sister Maria at first says no; then, relenting, she tells the young doctor to “come back at lauds (morning prayer). While they pray, I’ll let you in.” It’s Sister Maria’s first choice of secrecy and departure from her strict vow of obedience. A choice made by the Mother Abbess is far starker, and more terrible, and speaks to consequences of excessive religious belief.
Mathilde herself is not a believer. She’s from a French communist upbringing. At the Red Cross hospital, she works under a Jewish doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), whose parents died in Bergen-Belsen. She has an affair with him, the sort of clinging-together relationship that happens in circumstances where intimacy is like oxygen, and the prospects for it continuing into real life seem remote.
Only at the end does the film make a choice of its own that steers it into the shallows of screenplay contrivance. The performances, especially from de Laâge, Kuleska, and Buzek, are powerful, and Caroline Champetier’s cinematography, which paints the convent in chilly blues and locates it in a baffling maze of forest, is stunning. — Jonathan Richards