Dour and affecting, The Innocents is a historical drama inspired by little known events that happened in Poland immediately after WWII. It concerns the story of nuns that were raped and thereby shamed by their so-called liberators, the Russians. Many of these God-fearing samaritans were knocked up as a result and they were instructed to keep a lid on this fact. But truth be told, they were ill-equipped to handle birth at the convent. Enter a young Red Cross doctor named Mathilde who, through a chance encounter with one of these sisters, changed the course of their destiny.
According to the notes taken by Madeleine Pauliac, the real life medic who is represented in the film, 25 of the nuns were raped in their convent – as much as 40 times in a row for some of them – 20 were killed and five had to face up to pregnancy.
Director Anne Fontaine (Gemma Bovery) says “historical fact doesn’t reflect well on the Soviet soldiers, but it’s the truth – a truth that authorities refuse to divulge, even if several historians are aware of the events. “These soldiers didn’t feel they were committing a reprehensible act: they were authorised to do so by their superiors as a reward for their efforts.” Ms Fontaine says unfortunately this type of brutality is still widely practiced today, as women continue to be subjected to such indignities in warring countries around the world. She says spirituality had to be at the heart of the film as she explored motherhood, self-questioning and the fragility of faith. “We often believe that faith cements those who are driven by it. That’s an error: as Maria (one of the key nuns) confides to Mathilde in the film. It is much to the contrary, ‘twenty-four hours of doubt for one minute of hope’.”
In the convent, time has effectively been suspended and very strong discipline is practiced. The movie unfolds through a series of shocks. Screenwriters Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial have woven a tale of heartbreak and woe, although some light does shine through all this darkness before it is over. To say it is distressing to watch seems redundant. The barbarity of what the nuns went through in the first instance is perpetuated by what is happening to them now and that – of course – is the whole point of the film.
The essence of what gives The Innocents the power it has is the moral distress that the nuns are in … before the screws are turned even tighter. Mathilde goes through her own baptism of fire, earning the ire of her superiors by keeping her silence about what she is doing and yet it has to be that way. Lou De Laâge has a strong screen presence and brings layers of emotion to her role.
Visually, it is the harsh landscape and the coldness of the convent that strikes you, adding to the sense of isolation and despair. Rated M, The Innocents is one of the year’s best offerings thus far and scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Lou De Laâge, Agata Buzek, Joanna Kulig
Release Date: 27 April 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television