Warsaw, Poland, 1945. A group of nuns are at prayer when we hear a scream. One young novice sneaks out of the convent and goes to a nearby French Red Cross hospital. She begs one doctor, Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage), to help and the medico agrees and accompanies the novice back to the nunnery. The doctor is unprepared for what she finds when she meets “The Innocents.”
I have been an amateur historian on World War II since I was a kid so I always am amazed when I discover an aspect of that war that I did not know. “The Innocents” tells the true story about post-WWII Eastern Europe that is new to me and something that I never considered.
When the victorious Soviet Army defeated Hitler’s Germany, they laid waste to the former Nazi empire, including the rape of an estimated 500000 woman – about 100000 of whom committed suicide. “The Innocents” shows this horror through the eyes of the nuns, most of whom are young virgins, who are assaulted repeatedly by the Russian occupiers, resulting in seven pregnancies.
Director Anne Fontaine tells the story (with the help of six credited writers) in a captivating and powerful manner that lays bare the inner conflicts of the pregnant nuns. They are sure their condition will result in their eternal damnation and I wondered how their terrible ordeal could have anything approaching positive finale. Happily, the payoff is worth the angst of watching the film.
There is one aspect of “The Innocents” that stands out - Agata Buzech, as Sister Maria the assistant to the convent’s abbess (Agata Kuleza), gives a potent performance. She admits to Mathilde that the traumatic event of the gang rapes did not affect her as deeply as it did the novices because she once was “a party girl.” She also has the best dialogue, including a soliloquy delivered to Mathilde about faith that totally moved me.
This is women’s, not a femme, film. The setting is bleak and the weight of faith on the nuns’ shoulders is palpable, but there is a transitioning as the mood of doom changes
to one of hope and happiness as Mathilde and Sister Maria join forces to turn the crisis around. There is hope for the rest of us, maybe, too? I give it a B+.
In 1945 Poland, French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge, "Breathe") is surprised when a Polish nun begs her help. Mathilde directs her to her Polish counterpart, but when she spies the novice praying outside in the snow hours later, she acquiesces. At the Benedictine convent, the novice Teresa (Eliza Rycembel) is chastised by the Abbess (Agata Kulesza, "Ida") and Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) for bringing in a stranger, but they accept her help. Mathilde is horrified by the secret plight of "The Innocents."
The true story encountered by Madeleine Pauliac is dramatized by Anne Fontaine ("Coco Before Chanel," screenplay by Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial with dialogue by Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer and Philippe Maynial) as a war story thriller in its first half, an exploration of faith clashing with reality in its second. Lou de Laâge may be the star as the fictionalized Pauliac, but it is Polish actress Agata Buzek who gives the star making performance here, constantly surprising us with her complex Sister Maria.
When Mathilde is led to aid Sister Zofia (Anna Próchniak), the last thing she expects to deal with is a breach birth. The Abbess explains that the girl was thrown out by her family, but when Mathilde says she will return the next day to check on her, the Abbess declines. Sister Maria agrees to sneak her in during morning matins. But as the two wait in hiding as the nuns leave their chapel, another nun, Sister Anna (Katarzyna Dabrowska), collapses. She is also pregnant and the truth comes out. The nuns were subjected to a series of brutal rapes by Russian soldiers on three separate occasions leaving six nuns and one novice pregnant. The Abbess tells Mathilde Zofia's baby was taken to a sympathetic aunt, but Zofia's later suicide points toward an even deeper secret within the convent.
The communist doctor continues to slip away to visit the nuns, her official mission only allowing her to treat French citizens. On one drive back to her base she's stopped by the Russians and saved from being raped herself, her experience bonding her more closely to these women from a different world. Things are further complicated for Mathilde by her affair with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne, "Eden"). When she lets him in on her secret, he adds some comic relief as a male, Jewish doctor treating reluctant nuns.
But Mathilde's story is far less interesting than the complicated life of the Benedictines (Fontaine went on two retreats with the Benedictines, immersing herself in their life). Early on, Sister Maria declares the Abbess as their mother, a link to God who must not be questioned. But when the Abbess's secret is revealed (first, to us, later to the convent), Sister Maria once again struggles with her faith and decides to break its rules. When Mathilde arrives at the convent soaking wet, Maria lends her a dress, revealing that she once enjoyed men's company. Her analogy of faith being like 'a child holding its father's hand, but the time always comes when he lets go' is masterful. Buzek's performance is so powerful, her face so cinematic, one hopes she is remembered at year's end. Kulesza takes on a difficult role and enlightens both sides of her dilemma. What the Abbess does is unthinkable, but Kulesza makes us understand her (and when we learn what she has suffered at the hands of the Russians, even sympathize). The pregnant nuns project a range of coping mechanisms, one, Ludwika (Helena Sujecka), so traumatized she doesn't realize her own condition until giving birth, another laughing when Mathilde manipulates her belly. Anna even finds a new calling.
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s almost monochromatic lensing is starkly beautiful. This female centric film unveils a little known story of WWII, Fontaine finding a way to bring in the light at the end of a dark chapter.
Grade: B+ (the plus is all Buzek)
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