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In the icy cold of December, at a darkened convent in Poland, a small huddle of nuns gather in prayer. In the spaces between their chants is a muffled, frightening cry of an unseen woman screaming, her echoes reaching the chamber and distressing a young nun who can bear it no longer and in secret, exits the sealed church and braves the elements to fetch a doctor.
She finds Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a young, French Red Cross medical student working to save the survivors of German prison camps. She refuses the nun at first, but is soon moved by the girl’s desperation and drives her back to the convent. There she discovers a girl taken in by the nuns. She is ready to give birth but there is a complication. The nuns plead with Beaulieu to keep silent of the situation, that the young woman is a runaway and seeks safe harbor but this is a lie, and what Beaulieu learns is a terrifying story of horror and pride.
Directed by Anne Fontaine, The Innocents (French: Les Innocentes) is an unconventional war film, one that is about women but by no means less violent. That violence though does not come in bullets and combat but from other deeply personal and violating methods. We learn that as the Germans were pushed out of the Polish countryside, the Soviet army swept behind them and when coming upon the convent, invaded. They stayed for days and committed unspeakable acts of atrocity, leaving several of the young nuns tortured, raped, and pregnant.
The issue that complicates is the nun’s pledge to their God, a burden of sin and a vow never to expose their flesh or be touched. This the first hurdle for Beaulieu, who feels useless in their stay, and decides she can be of no help. There is also retribution from her own superiors for what appears to be a dereliction of her duties since she can’t explain her whereabout without revealing what she knows. She must tread carefully.
Fontaine paints a truly disturbing and harrowing tale mostly with dialogue, though there are some powerful moments that rend great emotion from the viewer. None of this is exploitive and is captured with compassion for the characters. De Laâge is the binding element and is a marvel to watch, her presence throughout astonishingly grounded, delivering a touching and heart-wrenching performance as she guides Beaulieu along a delicate arc of compassion. So too is Vincent Macaigne playing Samuel, a doctor who works with Beaulieu and comes into the secret fold. He is also her lover. Macaigne’s work is highly affecting and goes far against the expected. But it is the nun’s themselves that bring The Innocents to it heights, each wonderfully defined and impactful.
The Innocents is a tragic story, one devoid of sentimentally or manipulation. It’s a bleak, somber film that is beautifully photographed and acted, a challenging and haunting story that seizes with great ferocity. While it comes to a conventional end that seems to finds ways to give it a happy closure, the events that precede it are far more lasting.
Director: Anne Fontaine
Writers: Pascal Bonitzer
Stars: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne
Language: French, Polish, Russian