You don’t have to be religious to appreciate The Innocents, the story of a conscientious woman who comes to the aid of some distressed Roman Catholic nuns. You don’t have to be French or Polish to see that French Red Cross medical intern Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) relates to some frightened Polish nuns — whom she discovers while treating other war survivors — because they need her help. You don’t even have to know much history to grasp the predicament of Poland during and after World War II, victimized first by the Nazi Germans and then by the Soviet-backed Communist regime. All these plot threads and more figure in filmmaker Anne Fontaine’s somber but clear-headed film, one of the few meaningful releases of the typically giddy summer season.
December, 1945. The war is over, but not the fear. After the victorious Red Army has chased away the Nazi invaders and Allied relief-givers have established hospitals such as the one in which Mathilde works, a frantic nun shows up at the hospital begging for someone to visit her convent. Mathilde reluctantly goes, and what she sees shocks her. About nine months earlier, Russian troops stormed into the convent and went on a three-day spree of rape. Now some of the violated sisters are beginning to go into labor, causing them shame for broken vows of chastity and horror at the brutality they have suffered. Mathilde’s newfound mission is to care for the new mothers and their babies, but first she must pull back the curtain of secrecy, isolation, and silence.
Writer-director Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) seems to be on a mission of her own: To chart the destinies of women who take control of their own lives, despite the odds. For humanitarian volunteer Mathilde, daughter of a working-class communist, the nuns’ plight cries out for immediate, unquestioning mercy. Lined up against her are the hide-bound Mother Superior (played by Agata Kulesza from Ida), fearful of the wrath of god; the aggressive Russian soldiers stationed nearby, still with rape on their minds; Mathilde’s commanding officer at the Red Cross, angry at her for neglecting her primary duties; and, most poignantly, the suffocating terror felt by the sisters themselves. Gradually and warily, some of the nuns learn to trust this lone outsider. One nun in particular, Sister Maria (brilliantly portrayed by Agata Buzek), sees all the way through the situation and tries to explain it to Mathilde. It is suggested that the raped nuns would be better off dead. Mathilde’s reply: “They’ll go to heaven. Good for them. But I care about life.”
We glimpse another side of Mathilde when she befriends a fellow French doctor in the operating room. Dr. Samuel Lehmann (Vincent Macaigne) is a Jewish refugee whose parents died in Bergen-Belsen, and who is now dedicated to cleaning up the mess the Nazis left all over Europe. Samuel and Mathilde’s brief, budding relationship steers clear of wartime romantic cliché — there’s simply no time for love. Meanwhile, as Mathilde shuttles back and forth between her post and the convent, Caroline Champetier’s cinematography shows off the stark beauty of the forest and religious buildings in the snow, and the pinched, care-worn faces of the Mother Superior and her wounded “innocents.” One by one, the nuns give birth to their unwanted offspring. Everything about the babies is shameful, and yet they are human beings like everyone else. Title to the contrary, there are no innocents here.
Seventy years later, there appears to be no end of WWII dramas. As befits the biggest news event of the last century, the stories just keep tumbling out. The Innocents leaves us exhausted but with a sense of hope, thanks mostly to the performances of de Laâge, Buzek, and Macaigne. The rest of this sad chapter (purportedly based on real-life happenings), and its implications for the human race, are probably better left buried in the snow.