FILM REVIEW: THE INNOCENTS (2016) DIR. ANNE FONTAINE
By Belle McIntyre
This film, based on the diaries of a Red Cross doctor, takes place in the snowy winter of 1945 in Poland in the wake of WW II and it ricochets between two extreme locations. One is a Benedictine convent and the other a French Red Cross field hospital where an intrepid group of doctors are doing their best to repair the survivors before they run out of scarce supplies and are called to another location. The contrast between them is striking. The convent is fortress like, quiet, serene and ascetic while the field hospital is temporary, makeshift, chaotic, and emotionally charged.
The film opens inside the convent to the sublime sounds of the nun’s voices singing vespers, the sounds shimmering within the high stone walls only to be interrupted by piercing screams. This causes one of the young nun’s to slip away and escape out of a broken door and head out into the snow in a dead run. She is heading for the hospital where she convinces one of the female doctors, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) to come with her to save the life of one of the sisters. Mathilde is also obliged to slip away from her duties unauthorized.
Mathilde is shocked to discover a very pregnant nun ready to give birth and she is obliged to perform a C-section unaided. She then learns that this is the result of an assault by the victorious Russian soldiers at war’s end who stormed the convent and repeatedly raped a number of the sister for several days. More alarmingly - there are six more in the same condition. When she arranges to come back for post-operative care and to examine the other sisters, the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) refuses - fearing discovery, shame and disgrace. The stern Abbess and all of the sisters have been in denial for the past nine months, hiding their conditions under their habits and repressing their trauma in solitude with no thought to the inevitable.
Mathilde, a former Communist and atheist, whose belief in the science of medicine is as unshakable as their Catholicism finally makes the case of science over religion in this instance - in exchange for total discretion. It is a risky decision on her part as she must act against Red Cross protocol and make many perilous journeys between convent and hospital alone at night on dark roads past Russian soldiers and checkpoints without official authorization. The friendship which develops between Maria (Agata Buzek), the young French-speaking nun who acts as the translator between the Polish sisters and the French doctor allows us to understand the ambivalence which is challenging faith of the young nuns, many of whom were virgins before this horrendous violation and are still trying to maintain all of the tenets of their vows - such as not revealing their bodies to another person, including the female doctor.
Then there is the extremely troubling issue of what to do with the babies. The Abbess assures them that she will find homes for them and take them away. But, it becomes clear that there are too many coming at the same time to pass them all off as orphans left at the convent. There are no simple solutions. How the nuns deal with an all knowing, all wise, all forgiving God who would let this happen to them - who have given up all worldly things and dedicated themselves to being brides of Jesus. How to reconcile what they must do and still be true to their faith is just one of many of the dilemmas of which this film is full.
The brilliance of Anne Fontaine’s directing is that she does not try to reduce the complexities to clear cut examples of good vs. evil or right vs. wrong. Rather they are faced with metaphysical struggles between spirituality and dogma, sacred and secular, duty and humanity when their world is so confusing and unpredictable. She intelligently and sensitively draws us into the individual realities which collide and challenge the accepted norms and closely-held beliefs. The characters are all dedicated to their callings, both secular and sacred, and she deftly reveals their inner struggles to maintain their individual humanity in the face of the horrors of war.
I am unfailingly drawn to films about monasteries and convents. Partially it is about the visuals which are innate to the genre. I am a devotee of black and white over color. And the starkness of ecclesiastical architecture combined with the habits and robes of their inhabitants creates an austere abstraction which I find completely alluring. Caroline Champetier, the cinematographer creates indelible and breathtaking images inside the candlelit walls of the convent as well as outside in the snowy woods which surround it. The lighting throughout is moody and atmospheric which brings to mind old master painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt. The characters are illuminated against shadowy backgrounds creating visually and emotionally haunting images which, like the story, linger on in the mind as well as the mind’s eye.
© Belle McIntyre