The Innocents, 2016.
Directed by Anne Fontaine.
Starring Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza and Vincent Macaigne.
Poland after the end of World War II is occupied by the Russians and a female doctor is helping the Red Cross to care for survivors. A nun from the local convent arrives, pleading for help and when the doctor returns with her, she discovers one woman in labour and a number of heavily pregnant nuns, the result of a raid by Russian troops. The nuns are struggling to reconcile their situations with their faith and eventually it’s the young, atheist doctor who proves to be their only hope.
The cloistered, rigidly disciplined life of a religious community, male or female, always makes for heightened emotional cinema. In an environment where the individual always comes off last and human frailty stirs the pot, forgiveness and punishment for what the order dictates is a sin just intensifies matters. As if their way of life isn’t hard enough. Black Narcissus (1946), Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959) and, more recently, Ida (2013) all address that emotional repression from different angles.
The nuns in Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents are petrified. In their own eyes, they’ve committed every sin in the book and being examined by a female doctor is yet another one: they’re not allowed to show their body to anybody. They’re full of shame because they’ve lost their virginity, regardless of the fact that it was forced upon them in the most brutal of ways. They’re all suffering, pregnant or not, and in one way, they’re the innocents of the title.
In another, it’s their babies who are the innocents. They didn’t ask to be born and are literally innocent of their parentage. Some make dramatic, even shocking, entrances into the world. The first is a breach birth, so doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage) has to perform a rudimentary caesarean. There’s one gasp-making arrival, when the quietest of all the nuns suddenly gives birth unaided, sat on the edge of her bed in her cell. Nobody realized she was pregnant and, from the primitive nature of her birth and the look of total shock on her face, neither did she. You fear for her and her child, especially as she completely rejects the baby, but she re-appears in one of the latter scenes in the film. She has a happier ending than some.
Ironically, Mathilde is a fierce atheist, raised in a Communist family, even though she’s quick to point out that she’s not a card carrying member. Yet what she represents for the audience in terms of compassion is more charitable than what’s happening in the convent. Especially when it comes to the actions of the Mother Superior (Agata Kulezsa) who, as far as the other nuns are concerned, has found homes for the first babies. Her actions are dictated by the rules of the order, she believes she’s doing the right thing but it’s something that will torture her already shattered mind for the rest of her life.
It’s a story of birth and re-birth, of faith shattered and put back together by the most unlikely of sources, of female strength and solidarity. And it’s all based on a true story, that of Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac, who looked after the nuns in a Polish convent after the end of World War II. Just like the nuns, and with more than a little irony, the young doctor also works within a strict regime, that of the hospital, and visits the convent in secret for some time. Initially, her presence there is concealed as outsiders are not permitted. All the nuns, including Maria (Agata Buzek), with whom Mathilde forms a friendship, have to follow the rules, whatever the consequences.
The film is profoundly moving, all the more so for the restraint used in its making, not just in terms of the performances but also the screenplay and the camera work. With a muted palette of browns, greys and the white of the freezing Polish snow, the cinematography has a clarity and directness that goes hand in hand with the subject matter. Yet that restraint belies the raging turmoil underneath and emotion does break out – the screams of the nuns giving birth, the tears trickling down Maria’s face and Mother Superior taking to her bed and turning her back on the world.
The compassion, pain and ironies of The Innocents get so deep under your skin that they’re difficult to forget, making it a film that demands a second viewing. However many times you watch, it’s never anything less than moving and satisfying.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★