The Innocents, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is a French-Polish-Belgian co-production based on the real accounts of a young French doctor working for the Red Cross in post-World War II Poland. The year is 1945. Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu, who has been sent there to treat French survivors of the German camps, discovers a convent of Polish Benedictine nuns who are hiding what they believe is a terrible secret: Several of them are pregnant, the result of brutal rapes by Russian soldiers. In the able hands of the noted French director Anne Fontaine, the film portrays with subdued power these profoundly “hard cases”: women who have taken vows of chastity, horribly violated and feeling ashamed, though they are innocent of any crime.
Mathilde, played by the luminous young French actress Lou de Laâge, reluctantly visits the convent to help with a sister in urgent distress. Though her orders are only to treat the French, she becomes intrigued by the nuns’ predicament and is moved to continue helping them, at great personal risk. The nuns are initially resistant as well, fearing that communist authorities, should they become aware of their predicament, would use their “shame” to shut the convent down for good. Mathilde, we learn, is from an atheist communist family. She wonders how these nuns can hold on to their faith after the brutalization they endured. She also questions their complete obedience to the Reverend Mother, the one who is most wary of Mathilde’s involvement. But little by little, almost all of the sisters come to trust Mathilde, and some to love her—they beg her not to abandon them.
As I settled in to watch The Innocents at a private screening, I was aware of some initial defensiveness, expecting an onslaught of the kind of anti-Catholic bias so prevalent in contemporary culture. But it didn’t come. This is not a film that preaches or tries to manipulate emotions. Instead, it embraces mystery, by raising questions rather than trying to answer them. It portrays both religious faith and the lack of faith with deep respect. This is its quiet power.
The Innocents is an illustration of truth shining through paradox. Expectations are reversed: A woman of faith despairs, a woman of no faith experiences hope. We see the awful injustice of nuns being shamed and rejected by family members because they were raped. We see too the perilous scrupulosity of some of the sisters who believe that even submitting to a gynecological exam is sinful (one of them becomes hysterical, crying that she doesn’t want to go to hell). But by refusing to submit they put their own and their unborn child’s life at risk. It is Mathilde who advocates for the babies, without sentimentality—there are lives to be saved, and she is a doctor. And yet, it is Mathilde whose face gently lights up as she ministers to the newborns.
While the circumstances of their conception are horrific, no disgust or aversion is evident towards the babies, who are themselves occasions of hope. I thought about how bleak the story would be without their squalling, bloody entrances; where out of pain and fear comes a miracle. In a climate of anxiety and grief, the immediate needs of the babies provide relief and purpose. The resilience of children is also symbolized by the little war orphans, living on the streets around the Red Cross clinic, with whom we see Mathilde playfully interact throughout the film. Despite her frequent weariness, whenever she sees them, she smiles. The children are always active, running, and playing with an exuberance that belies their situation.
The heart of the film lies in the relationship that develops between Mathilde and Sister Maria, played by Polish actress Agate Bezek. Sister Maria is second in command; in contrast to Reverend Mother’s sometimes harsh discipline, she shows mercy and compassion for her sisters. As the trust between Mathilde and Maria grows, they confide in each other about their life choices, and whether those choices have brought them any happiness amidst the horrors of war. In a memorable line, Sister Maria remarks: “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt with a minute of hope.” Their newly forged bond becomes the linchpin of the story, as they encourage each other to do what would have seemed impossible on their own. Indeed, this is a film that focuses on the dynamics of female relationships—except for the poignant and sometimes refreshingly humorous scenes of Mathilde with her lover, the engaging Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish doctor grieving the loss of his family to the Nazis who nevertheless finds purpose and even joy in his life of service. He is intrigued by Mathilde—as are we. And when she can no longer handle the convent’s needs on her own, it is he who she trusts to help her.
There will be no spoilers here, but there are plot twists and turns that may strongly surprise, and keep you pondering The Innocents long after the closing credits. It is significant that its original European-release title was Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, because in the film, through the suffering of innocents, salvation comes to many who had seemed without hope.
The Innocents opens in select theaters July 1st. Be sure to see it.