Out Now On-Demand
During the aftermath of WWII, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a young doctor, is urged to visit a local Polish convent. There she finds a nun in labour, and hears other grim tales from other sisters, many of whom still cannot face their own pregnancy, with the army responsible now having disappeared.
"Based on true events, this thrilling drama will have you on the edge of your seat to see what happens. Superlative director Anne Fontaine, who brought us Adore (2013 Sundance Film Festival) and Coco Before Chanel, is at her best when transporting us to intimate worlds of women courageously crossing verboten boundaries." (Sundance Film Festival)
Drama, World Cinema, Festival & Independent
Rating: M Sexual violence, suicide and content that may disturb
French, Polish and Russian with English subtitles
You’ve never seen a World War II film like this before. Based on actual post-war events, The Innocents follows a Polish convent housing several pregnant nuns – victims of an “indescribable nightmare” – who are due to give birth. They cannot turn to a local doctor, for the nuns would be evicted and disgraced. They cannot turn to a Russian doctor, since their soldiers caused this unspeakable horror. Their only hope – aside from God – is a French Red Cross doctor who must keep their secret.
If this thematic mix of war, sexual violence, and dwindling faith seems way too depressing for you, I can’t blame you. Fortunately, filmmaker Anne Fontaine doesn’t bombard us with the disgusting acts of men and instead focuses on the ironclad compassion of women. Fontaine uses gloomy dark-on-white imagery and rigid compositions to capture the stark atmosphere inside the convent. When the gorgeous brown of the outside trees come into view, it feels like a completely new world.
Rising star Lou de Laâge, who delivered wholesome charm in The Wait and venomous assholery in Breathe, expands her impressive range even further as battle-hardened doctor Mathilde. Her stern demeanour lets the stone-faced convent Mother (the excellent Agata Kulesza) know she’s not messing around – “God’s help won’t be enough,” – but allows just enough shades of vulnerability to coat her strength with humanity. The film’s message pairs perfectly with her performance: faith in people can be as powerful as faith in God.
The Innocents examines the devoted during a time when God seems to have abandoned them, revealing an ugly divide between doing right by your lord and doing right by your fellow human. But even in the film’s most shocking, gasp-escaping moment, it remains sympathetic to these acts born out of desperation and religious paradox. An utterly graceful film about an almost graceless time.
New York Times
Los Angeles Times
The Guardian (UK)
Total Film (UK)
Stuff.co.nz (Sarah Watt)
Sydney Morning Herald
A soulful essay about atrocities committed against nuns during war.
Most war films recount history as if women were never involved or their experiences not worth mentioning. That is just one of many reasons why The Innocents (2016) stands out in the war film genre: it is about, for, and made by women. The result is a soulful essay about atrocities committed against a group of nuns during the second world war, portrayed as a complex metaphorical struggle between religious faith, medical science, and evil.
The linear plotline is as austere as the film’s narrative. We meet a serene and devout convent of Benedictine nuns in Poland who go about their daily prayer with quiet conviction and meticulous adherence to ritual. The serenity is shattered by the scream of a nun about to give birth. One nun fetches a French Red Cross medical intern Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laáge) who sneaks out of the aid mission to help. She learns that Soviet soldiers had raped the nuns and several births were imminent. Mathilde is a non-believer yet is bewildered by the strength of the nun’s faith and compelled to help. The nuns believe they are complicit in sin, and some are unable to even submit to medical examination while others do so with deep shame. The tension between sin and evil erupts when the baby is born and Mother Superior takes it out for fostering but instead leaves it in the forest. With more births coming, a convent full of babies cannot survive under Soviet occupation. It is Mathilde who finds an ingenious solution that ensures their survival.
Within this narrative arc, there are several strands that explore the nature and practice of faith by a group of women with varied backgrounds and different relationships with their god. Throughout the story, the tension between belief and logic creates a haunting presence. Young Mathilde struggles in a vortex of faith, science and evil, and comes to learn that there are no absolutes. The dystopia of war shatters all, yet faith survives in love and devotion to helping others. She grows emotionally with the experience just as the nun’s learn tolerance of those who do not share their faith.
While the film has a strong cast of fine performers, it is Lou de Laage who shines brightly in a difficult role. She seamlessly traverses a wide emotional range from inspired awe to resolute determination to help, including restrained romantic explorations with a senior colleague. The portrait-like cinematography conveys the bleak landscape and convent solitude with a sympathetic lens that avoids despair. The film is a tribute not only to the violated nuns but to women of all nationalities mistreated at the hands of military forces. Rape in war continues in modern times, with many nations in denial and others struggling with unresolved shame. This is not an entertaining story, but a dark episode of history on which light has long been needed.