Directed by Anne Fontaine
Opens July 1
Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents is a movie about nuns becoming mothers, and in the attempt to stave off audience incredulity, it is a very serious film. The nuns, a Polish Benedictine community, have been raped by Red Army soldiers (Soviet forces advanced across Poland, against Nazi Germany, in 1945). The French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), secretly brought in to help the women who have become pregnant, is a taciturn non-believer, raised by solemn Communists. Her colleague and occasional lover Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), is a pillar of pathos draped in one-liners: a wisecracking French-Jewish doctor whose parents were killed in Bergen-Belsen. A gaggle of orphans play in snow outside of the Red Cross Hospital. Europe’s survivors seem to have been flattened, by years of war and tropes of war-film, into representative types.
To its credit, The Innocents sets itself the problem of transubstantiating these types into flesh, inasmuch as this can be accomplished in Caroline Champetier’s crisply attractive (if not overly ambitious) widescreen cinematography. The nuns are simplest and to enliven, perhaps because we expect of them only piety and, in this case, trauma. Against bare convent galleries, white novice veils, and black habits, a range of responses and personalities stands out: one very young woman, ashamed as though she were the sinner, can’t bear to let Mathilde examine her; another considers her child’s father her protector; a third has disassociated from the events so utterly that she’s unaware of having given birth. Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) has a past; the Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza, playing a Catholic variation on her tormented, authoritarian Ida character), is afraid that if word of the pregnancies gets out, the convent has no future.
Fontaine, at least, is discreet. Working from a screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial, inspired by the field notes of French doctor Madeleine Pauliac, she shows more newborns than surgeries, and the film’s goriest scene is bloodless. The quietly dedicated Mathilde has been visiting the convent in secret, at night, after fulfilling her daily duties at the hospital. Driving back through Soviet territory, she is nearly gang-raped herself. In a war film about civilians, this is the battle scene, and it’s as violent as anything Kathryn Bigelow, say, can show you. Soldiers on both sides of that war—and other, most recent ones—were encouraged to think of civilian populations as subhuman or beastly, which amounts to the same thing; the mass rapes they committed weren’t discussed for half a century afterward—because, as the Reverend Mother has it, of the shame. But even if The Innocents ends neatly, perforce inspirationally, at least on the strength of its actors, it makes an effective point: it isn’t the women who ought to be ashamed here.