At first glance, The Innocents seems to mark a departure from Anne Fontaine's previous films. Set in Poland at the end of the Second World War and based on notes written by French Red Cross Doctor Madeleine Pauliac, you won’t find tumultuous love triangles or blissful beach life. And yet the director's signature themes remain: women, and the psychological and moral issues that they face. Entirely new, however, is the matter of how to maintain faith, be it in yourself or in God, when you are subjected to events that test it. This is a film, then, that has plenty of contemporary resonance despite its historical setting.
In December 1945, Poland is picking up the pieces after being ravaged first by the Germans, then by the Russians. Field Doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), based on Pauliac, finds her attention pulled towards a convent of nuns, a number of whom have found themselves pregnant after being raped by Soviet troops. While the nuns suffer the personal torment of trying to retain their faith after having “sinned,” Mathilde bravely juggles her Red Cross role with delivering their babies. All the while a stern Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) is adamant that the outside world cannot discover what occurred within the convent walls.
The Innocents is one of the lesser-told stories of atrocities that came out of the war, and is Fontaine’s most moving film yet. The icy cold setting of the convent and the busy field hospital paints a bleak picture, shown in chilling, muted tones. Gradually we see instances of the nuns’ inner turmoil, be it in haunting travelling shots through stony corridors as they go about their rituals, or in the scrupulously structured sequence of a desperate C-section. And yet there are injections of hope throughout. Indeed, there are some instances of humour, many of which revolve around female sexuality and the role of women, making the film unmistakably Anne Fontaine.
While it can be understood why there are no flashbacks to the horror, The Innocents could perhaps have benefited from a touch more character development of each individual nun – while the rhythm of convent life is perfectly captured, some more emotional involvement wouldn’t have necessarily gone amiss. Despite this, some nuns are given some distinction, and Kulesza’s tortured Mother Abbess particularly stands out as she faces a debilitating moral choice. It is de Laâge, however, who steals the show, playing a modern, pragmatic, and independent doctor. As it happens, it seems to be Mathilde’s faith in her own capabilities that proves stronger than any faith in God.
For all the sadness and the laughter, the film’s ending does it an injustice, and goes so far as to become a little too trite to be believable. It jars with the earlier tone of the film and detracts from the horror of the story. Nonetheless, The Innocents is a haunting drama and exposes events that perhaps should be given more attention in history books – events that still occur far too regularly in many countries today.
Words by Imogen Robinson