French director Anne Fontaine’s beautiful film The Innocents tells the story of a convent in Poland at the end of WWII and the French Red Cross doctor that comes to the aide of the sisters after a horrific event. It’s a rarity to find a film that focuses on different aspects of a woman’s experiences, but The Innocents manages to weave together the intricacies of female partnership and camaraderie organically through the lens of broader institutions such as religion and political ideology.
Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is living a life uncommon to most French women her age in 1945 as a Red Cross doctor’s assistant. She is stationed in Poland, tasked with caring for the last soldiers there as well as the Polish people of a town now under the new Russian regime at the tail end of the war. The Russians don’t plan on being much better to the Polish than the Germans were, as Mathilde discovers when a scared nun from the convent nearby the Red Cross station begs her to come to check on an ailing sister. Mathilde discovers that seven of the convent’s sisters are pregnant, all suffering rapes at the hands of Russian soldiers. Despite fears of shame and damnation, the sisters allow Mathilde to administer aide to the them, as a complicated partnership evolves into genuine trust and friendship between unlikely allies.
What The Innocents manages to achieve is to be a film about women that doesn’t focus on each triumph as a miraculous event of “girl power” over oppressive forces, but rather an honest look at how women working together can move past dire circumstances and lead lives they choose for themselves. The film never puts emphasis on Mathilde’s Communist upbringing or her odd place as the sole female Red Cross assistant. When we meet Mathilde she is working with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a physician and her sometimes lover, during a surgery. They are drawn to each other not because of some power deferential but because they are both far away from home and are of the same mind in many ways. She is skilled and intelligent and Samuel recognizes the talent without noting it’s peculiarity.
When Mathilde realizes that by keeping the pregnancies a secret she must deliver these babies herself, she does so without any dramatic tension. From the first delivery there is never any doubt that she is capable of doing so, even though there are other Red Cross doctors more qualified. Her intelligence and quick thinking come in handy during other key points in the film but never does Mathilde as a character come off as an impossible being in the real world circa 1945. Everything she says and does comes from the experiences she has had in her life during war.
Fontaine also never mocks the nuns’ strict religious beliefs. When Mathilde first arrives, some of the sisters are frightened at the prospect of an outsider, even a female, touching them in such an intimate way, so strong is their fear of mortal damnation. There are other sisters who are welcoming of Mathilde, and seem curious about her, asking questions about her “many lovers” back in France all through smiles and giggles. It’s here that we get some insight into each sister’s story, how she came to the convent and why, and how those experiences are shaping her reaction to the horrific events at the convent. Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) soon becomes Mathilde’s closest friend in the convent, but she is also the second to the Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza). At first, Maria’s loyalties to the strict moral code of the Mother seem to work against the best interests of the pregnant sisters, but we soon learn of Maria’s life before her calling, which included relationships with men and perhaps other dreams that she willingly put aside to follow her faith. The more Maria evaluates the situation of the sisters, the more her own personal moral compass ebbs and flows.
The film touches on these differing aspects of motherhood, from the Mother Abbess who we know has her sisters best interests at heart despite her own cruel and ultimately self- damning methods, to the sisters who choose motherhood and leave the convent after giving birth, and those who choose to stay and give up motherhood entirely. In each situation the church acts as both a refuge and a means of reconciliation, and a prison during impossible times. Fontaine paints each nun’s decision as her own, with no option better than another, rather the importance is placed on each woman’s ability to decide her own fate.
At the end, it’s through a combination of collaboration and self-analysis that these women are able to overcome their hardships and enable a situation that will allow them to move past a horrible event in their lives. Within the safety of their friendships and a newfound trust (or rejection) of their faith, the sisters are able to make difficult decisions they may have been unable to make in the past, in order to live their best life for the future.
The Innocents opens today at the Ritz Five.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.