The Innocents opens with a group of nuns singing hymns of praise as the sound of a woman screaming can be faintly heard in the background. This juxtaposition of faith and pain plays prominently into the themes that permeate Anne Fontaine’s latest work. Set in Poland during the dreary month of December in 1945, the film recounts the real-life events that occurred when a young French Red Cross doctor risked it all to help a convent of Polish nuns.
When Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is brought to a secluded Benedictine convent, by a nun who disobeys the orders of her Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza, Ida), she is shocked by the sight of a young nun in labour. It soon becomes clear that at least seven others are in a similar condition. Realizing that the entire order has been traumatized by brutal sexual assaults at the hands of Russian soldiers, who were sent to liberate Poland from the Germans, Mathilde is compelled by both her medical duty and human compassion to assist the women in their time of need. That is if she can somehow figure out how to navigate both the politics that comes with a new communist government and the nun’s wishes to keep their issues private.
Presenting the horrific aftermath of war through Mathilde’s eyes, Fontaine presents some interesting questions regarding the nature of faith in the face of atrocities. While Mathilde is a strong woman who ultimately puts her own safety in jeopardy to help those within the convent, it is the nuns such as Maria (Agata Buzek) who truly grab the audience’s attention. Through Maria and others, the film not only effectively explores the trauma and shame often associated with rape, but also the unhealthy sense of pride that can often erode the religious minded from the inside.
Fontaine never uses the film to openly criticize Christianity, instead she shows that religion and faith is something fluid not rigid. This is something many of the nuns had forgotten until Mathilde, a non-believer, entered their lives. While the performances from the likes of Kulesza and Buzek effectively convey the difficult themes at play, The Innocents does suffer a bit from its languid pacing. The fact that Mathilde is often the observer of the central conflicts within the film, rather than the catalyst, also takes away from some of the emotional punches the film tries to deliver. Fortunately, the film’s overall themes and questions are reason enough to recommend giving The Innocents a look. The film reminds us that, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, hope is a universal trait that will always provide a glimmer of light in our darkest hours.