115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Religious faith, political ideals, ignorance, charity, war, extreme human cruelty…there’s hardly a big topic that isn’t touched on in “The Innocents,” writer/director Anne Fontaine’s terribly sad and quietly riveting film set in rural Poland in the months after the end of World War II.
In the dead of night Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French Red Cross nurse working with the survivors of German POW camps, is summoned to an ancient convent. There she discovers one of the holy sisters in labor.
The Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) resents that an outsider has arrived to witness the order’s shame. She would prefer to have the patient die in childbirth. God’s will, and all that.
Nevertheless, Mathilde swears to keep the secret and performs a Caesarian section. Later the convent’s Number Two, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), explains that the Mother Superior fears that the ignorant local populace would shun the nuns if word of the birth got out. It could mean the end of the convent.
One can only imagine how the locals would react if they knew that at least seven of the sisters are pregnant, and that virtually every resident — including Mother Superior — was raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers who seized the neighborhood nine months earlier.
“They should have killed us,” one of the sisters laments.
Set in a bleak winter landscape and filmed with a washed-out palette in which flesh tones provide the main source of color, “The Innocents” uses this situation to study the various ways in which we deal with the injustices of an often-cruel world.
Mathilde, for example, is an atheist and a Communist (ironic, given that she narrowly escapes being gang raped by a squad of Soviet troops at a roadblock). But she is also a humanist and a healer, so she risks nighttime returns to the convent, which is quickly becoming a primitive maternity ward.