Set in the aftermath of World War II, the quietly powerful drama “The Innocents” shows women of faith working side by side with nonbelievers to bring light to a dark, horrifying world.
Based on the experience of a Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac, the movie opens in December 1945, as a Benedictine nun desperately seeks help from a French Red Cross dispensary in Warsaw. A young doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Lage) is soon drawn into a tragic situation at a Polish convent: Months after a brutal sexual assault by Russian soldiers, one of the sisters is about to give birth. Six others are also with child.
The convent’s stern leader, known as Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza of “Ida”), reluctantly allows Mathilde to provide prenatal care for the sisters as long as she keeps her visits a secret. But the doctor must divide her time between the convent, her Red Cross work, and her lover Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish doctor. Driving alone at night, she encounters a group of Russian soldiers, barely escaping the nun’s fate herself.
Although she is the daughter of communists, Mathilde comes to respect the solemn, prayerful routine of the convent, her stoicism touched by her encounter with their ascetic life — and by witnessing a faith that has been shaken, but not broken. She even develops an unlikely friendship with the young nun Maria (Agata Buzek), whose memories of life — and love — before the convent have left her both more practical and with a deeper appreciation of the religious vocation. “Faith is 24 hours of doubt,” Maria tells Mathilde, “and one minute of hope.”
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While researching the film, director Anne Fontaine (”Gemma Bovary”) went on two retreats with Benedictine nuns. As a result, “The Innocents” convincingly portrays the hard and simple life of the convent, as well as its dynamic of conflicting personalities. Snow-covered, nearly monochromatic exteriors echo the black and white habits of the nuns, while serving as a visual metaphor for a world in which good and evil can seem all too clear cut. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier delicately captures convent life in what looks like available light. The sun’s rays fall on the nuns, as if in a living painting by Vermeer.
Originally released as “Agnus Dei,” “The Innocents” now boasts a title that is at once more generic and more ambiguous: Who are the film’s innocents? Is it the nuns, who have been assaulted by Russian soldiers, or their infant children? Or, as the title also suggests, is it the viewers who are unaware of this slice of brutal history? Through the example of friendship and cooperation, “The Innocents” shines a glimmer of hope on a period of great doubt.
Rated: PG-13 for sexual assault, graphic depiction of surgery and brief suggestive material. Starring: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. Director: Anne Fontaine. Running time: 115 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In French and Polish with subtitles.