Les innocentes (original title)
Director: Anne Fontaine
Writers: Sabrina B. Karine (scenario), Alice Vial (scenario)
Stars: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza
The Innocents is a harrowing, incredibly powerful insight into religion, in this case Christianity, from Anne Fontaine. Clearly garnering inspiration from Ida and God of Men, it heavily focuses on the human and emotional costs of the Soviet liberation of Poland, whilst also highlighting the effect that some of Christianity’s archaic beliefs had on women, who were subjected to widespread, close minded, intolerance that effectively forced them into taking some horrific actions.
Beginning with a beautiful morning prayer that’s interrupted by shrill, piercing screams from a woman somewhere deep within the convent. The film then follows a nun as she sneaks out and heads to town seeking help. Upon arriving, she is initially turned away by the young, liberal nurse, Mathilde, who is in Poland with the French Red Cross to assist camp survivors. The young nurse quickly has a change of heart after watching the nun praying outside in the bitter cold and agrees to help.
The origin of the screams is then revealed to be a heavily pregnant woman and it quickly becomes apparent that she’s a member of the convent herself, despite a fanciful cover story being served initially. Mathilda performs an emergency caesarean on the young lady and pleads to be allowed back the following day to check on the wounds. This request is denied by the secretive Mother Superior, Mère Absesse, with no explanation given.
Thankfully, sense is seen by the nun who earlier requested her assistance and she agrees to sneak Mathilde back in the next day during the morning prayer. It’s during this second visit that the full tragedy of the horrors afflicted upon the convent are laid bare, beginning with another pregnant nun collapsing. The Mother Superior soon ushers a bewildered Mathilde into her office, admitting there’s at least half a dozen other pregnancies, before discussing the sickening spout of rapes that occurred on repeated visits by the Soviet soldiers.
The need for secrecy is then underlined and Mathilde, who has agreed to help in any way she can, is left with the awkward predicament of having to deliver several babies on her own, unable to turn to her Jewish lover come colleague, Samuel, due to his extreme dislike of the Catholic church and the way it turned a blind eye to the holocaust.
Despite the dangers of the lone trips and narrowly avoiding being raped by Soviets herself, Mathilde’s will remains unbroken and she continues to help during her spare time, and the longer she spends at the convent the stronger her bond with several of the women becomes. This bond and the growing gratitude of the nuns is only solidified further when she displays good “presence of mind”, telling Soviet soldiers there’s a Typhus epidemic at the convent during a surprise visit, which successfully scares them off.
The veil of secrecy some of the women had initially chosen to hide behind is then all but removed and they begin opening up, Maria talks about her faith and doubts, the rapes and abusers, whilst in Teresa’s case, her plans for a future outside the walls of the convent is candidly discussed. Meanwhile, one of the nuns, Ludwika, abruptly gives birth in her room and immediately rejects the baby, appearing in shock, this is then secretively given to Zofia to be cared for, away from the formidable watch of Mère.
It’s shortly after this point that things begin to take a definite darker turn tonally. An increasingly stretched and overwhelmed Mathilde, a month away from being relocated back home or to Berlin, is finally forced to confide in her colleague Samuel and request his assistance, as several nuns give birth at the same time. Up until this point Mère Abesse’s explanation about the babies being sent away to foster families is not really given much thought, but following a gut wrenching scene where she appears to leave Ludwika’s baby at a cross in the freezing cold, it soon becomes apparent that she’s been lying and, by all accounts, murdering the babies to ‘protect’ the others chastities and save them from sin. This of course sends an already fragile Zofia over the edge, literally and tragically, and the whole charade then collapses after a startling revelation is made by Maria during a trip to Zofia’s family.
Following the the revelation of Mère’s atrocities and with the imminent arrival of sister Irena’s baby, not to mention the others still at the convent, Maria is left with a real moral dilemma. And thankfully, after the birth of the aforementioned child, she and Irena make their way to town with three young babies, seeking protection and advice from the Red Cross. The pair return with Mathilda and a host of orphaned children, explaining that the babies need not be given up and that the convent could take in the orphans, thus explaining their sudden appearance.
This then forces Mère to unravel her layers of secrecy, as the other nuns refer to her foster family arrangements, which she obviously can’t do without implicating herself in the deaths of the babies sent away. The film then enters a moving finale, narrated by Mathilde as she reads a letter sent by the nuns, with the commonly used, but nontheless spine tingling, On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter playing out to a heartwarming shot of the women posing with their babies.
There’s some really strong performances in this film and I have to say the acting across the board is top notch. Lou de Laâge is the clear lead in the film and is absolutely excellent as Mathilde. The story is conveyed through her characters viewpoint and she does a really good job carrying the film throughout. Agata Buzek delivered a keyed in emotional performance as Maria, perhaps the nun with the most screen time in the film. Agata Kulesza steals the show with her magnificent portrayal of the conflicted Mère Abesse though.
You really don’t know whether to hate or pity a woman, who’s clearly deeply devout, but also commits the most inexplicable acts. I have to give an honourable shout Vincent Macaigne as Samuel too. His character failed to give a realistic romantic subplot with Mathilde, but was genuinely funny at points with some brilliantly written lines and these rare moments of humour offered some nice levity from what is for the most part a serious subject matter.
I can’t finish discussing this film without giving a quick mention to the wonderful work done on visuals by Caroline Champetier. There’s some truly beautiful shots in this film, especially of the snowy woodlands that encompass the convent and the somber visuals perfectly frame the story being portrayed Fontaine.
I highly recommend giving this a viewing if you haven’t already.