Much of Anne Fontaine’s blistering film The Innocents is set within the walls of a Polish convent in December 1945, just after the end of World War II. What at first appears to be an austere, holy retreat from surrounding horrors is revealed to be a savagely violated sanctuary awash in fear, trauma and shame. The snow-covered, forested landscape of the convent is photographed to suggest an ominous frontier that offers no refuge from marauding outsiders.
The central character, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), is a young doctor caring for French soldiers in a Red Cross hospital. One day, a young nun appears and pleads with Mathilde to make an emergency visit to a Benedictine convent to save the life of a sister who lies gravely ill. Defying hospital protocol, Mathilde slips away to the convent, where she discovers a pregnant novice in the throes of labor. Mathilde delivers the baby by cesarean section but is sworn to secrecy by the fearful Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza, of Ida), who is terrified lest the news of a pregnant nun tarnish the convent’s reputation.
Mathilde, a nonbeliever, learns that several months earlier, Soviet soldiers occupying Poland stormed the convent and repeatedly raped the nuns, leaving many pregnant. Mathilde agrees to return and assist in the deliveries of their babies.
The Innocents is based on real events, recounted in notes by Madeleine Pauliac, a Red Cross doctor on whom Mathilde is based. Director Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery), who extensively researched these atrocities and spent time in two Benedictine convents, writes in the production notes that the soldiers felt no sense of wrongdoing, because they were encouraged by their superiors to commit these crimes as a reward for their hard work on the battlefield.
While driving back to the hospital, Mathilde is intercepted at a Soviet checkpoint and pounced on by soldiers, one of whom announces, “She wants all of us!” Were the assault not interrupted by a senior officer, the scene would be unwatchable.
The Innocents weaves several narrative strands into a complex of themes that sometimes pull against one another. Mathilde, serenely acted by de Laâge, is a beautiful, preternaturally wise and compassionate young woman: a modern heroine undaunted by the horrors of the world. When a band of soldiers returns to the convent while she is there, her quick thinking saves the nuns from another harrowing round of assaults.
The movie gives her a semi-love story in her affair with a medical supervisor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a soulful Jewish doctor. The screenplay depicts the relationship as a friendly romance of convenience by two lonely, overstressed people who may never meet again. When Mathilde returns to the convent, he accompanies her, and they work as a team to deliver the remaining babies.
The film takes care to distinguish the sisters from one another in their responses to a kind of brutality that the most naïve among them couldn’t have imagined. Those with more worldly backgrounds are better able to cope. The Innocents resists the temptation to wallow in sentiment as the nuns give birth, and images of new mothers cuddling their newborns are kept to a minimum. What you feel is their agony, terror and confusion.
But the film surrenders to convention once a too-neat solution is found for the care of the little ones. It is a soggy end to an otherwise tough, troubling film whose images of brutality and helplessness are hard to shake.
The Innocents is most interested in exploring how the atrocities test the sisters’ religious faith. As more of them give birth, the movie creates a complex group portrait. To a degree, Maria (Agata Buzek), the sister who showed up at the hospital begging for help, speaks for all of them when she describes the challenges and rewards of belief and self-sacrifice as “24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope.”
The most complicated and compelling character is the severe Mother Abbess, who faces an excruciating choice between saving a baby’s life and risking disgrace, or abandoning the infant. Kulesza’s anguished performance conveys the weight of an almost unbearable choice, which she believes condemns her to eternal damnation.
Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig.
Director: Anne Fontaine.
Screenwriters: Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 115 minutes. Strong adult themes, some bloody images, suggestive content. In French, Polish and Russian with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Opens July 15 in Broward at Gateway.