THE IN­NO­CENTS, drama, rated PG-13, in Pol­ish, Rus­sian, and French with sub­ti­tles, The Screen,

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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

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