Current Issue #477

Film Review: The Innocents

Film Review: The Innocents

Luxembourg-born director Anne Fontaine has made films in France (notably Nathalie…, Coco Avant Chanel and Gemma Bovery) and Australia (Adoration a.k.a. Adore), but The Innocents is a multilingual French/Polish co-production filmed in beautifully snowy towns in northern Poland.

Drawn from the true experiences of French Red Cross doctor Madeleine Pauliac (the aunt of Philippe Maynial, who’s credited with the original idea), it’s a moving study of the horrors of war, the torments of faith and the dangers of ethics. While it isn’t quite a masterwork, this is still powerful cinema.

Maria (Agata Buzek), a young nun, leaves her convent outside Warsaw in December 1945 and attempts to convince a French Red Cross doctor named Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) to help her, but Mathilde insists that she is only permitted to care for soldiers, and there are plenty of them who need it. However, Mathilde is too kind-hearted, gives in and eventually accompanies Maria back to the convent to help a woman in great pain deliver a baby, and is told that the young mother has been cast out by her family.

Returning to help further, despite the professional and personal risk, Mathilde discovers the sisters’ terrible secret, and as it’s perhaps obvious (and has been given away elsewhere) it can be revealed here: Russian soldiers invaded the place several times and raped many of the nuns. Now more than a few are pregnant and afraid that if the truth gets out about these less-than-immaculate conceptions then the scandal will ruin them.

Mathilde, a communist sympathiser and atheist (she’s seen too much despair to believe in God), agrees to keep coming to care for the sisters as the babies start arriving. While she’s sworn to stay silent about it by the formidable Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), her comings and goings are noticed by her arrogant, Pole-hating doctor lover Samuel (Vincent Macaigne). Meanwhile, movingly, new and different sisterhoods are developing, especially as Mathilde and Maria forge a bond stronger than any religious vows.

With gorgeous cinematography by Caroline Champetier and memorably unsentimental performances by de Laâge, Buzek and Kulesza (so stern and flawed but so human), Fontaine’s film is neither anti-religion nor pro-science but, instead, about compassion, mercy and forgiveness, qualities we could all do with considerably more of these days.

Rated M. The Innocents is in cinemas now

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