The Innocents, set in the cold and snowy rural Polish landscapes, is the story of a young French doctor (Lou de Laâge) bound to secrecy when she decides to help a convent of nuns in the late stages of pregnancy. Significantly, the film takes place in postwar Poland in 1945—a period of cross-cultural tension where no group is without their own feelings of guilt or suffering. The Innocents, featuring a cast of almost exclusively all women, is a rare wartime drama where the greatest conflicts are fought behind locked doors.
It affirms a harsh truth of postwar healing that before things can get any better, they’re going to get a lot worse. That’s especially true here, the pregnant nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers who were supposed to be liberating their Polish town. How or why it happened is unimportant to them, what matters is how they heal and come to grips with the damage already done—undoubtedly an allegory of Europe after the Second World War.
The Innocents is a disturbing but deeply sympathetic portrait of women coming to grips with their place in the world. The central characters are nuns and doctors but Anne Fontaine, director of the film, seems less interested in the demands enforced on them by their professions and instead on the roles they choose to play when confronted with matters of life and death. The film is clear on its opinion of organized religion. The nun’s toughest challenge in upholding faith to God is denying the essential qualities that make them human. Companionship, human contact and lust are not only denied from these women but acting on them results in punishment. But not even the fear of god can quell the choices of the human heart because when Nun Maria (Agata Buzek) chooses to seek medical help for her sisters, she does it knowing the threat it brings to both the reputation and safety of the convent.
The doctor of the film, Mathilde, is stationed at a French outpost when she decides to help the nuns in secrecy. It’s made quite clear that Mathilde doesn’t believe in God, an indifference that causes a natural rift between her and the convent’s Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), but that doesn’t stop the young doctor from forming a strong bond with the convent’s nuns. One of the few things that Fontaine captures in the precious moments between Mathilde and the nuns is a universality of morality, beyond the clinical ethics of doctors and religious piety of nuns. Approached by the nun Mathilde initially ignores her pleas not wanting to abandon her post, but when she finds herself confronted with her feelings, the young doctor has a change of heart, putting her own livelihood on the line.
Laâge, who plays Mathilde, is mesmerizing, in one of the film’s signature close-ups of the doctor’s face, she watches as Maria prays outside (shortly after Mathilde rejects the nun’s pleas for help) and for a few seconds we can see a sensitivity manifest beyond her hardened professionalism. Shots linger on faces in the film just long enough to capture the emotional toll of a scene, and on Laâge’s command, her eyes can tell a story in and of themselves. Another great performance comes from Agata Kulesza (who mastered the art of understated powerhouse in 2014’s Ida) who captures, with a low-key tragedy, the preservation of her character’s religious virtues but at the cost of her own basic human values.
Postwar dramas are never truly celebratory, nor should they be. Winning a war is the result of lives being lost, nations crumbling and cities destroyed. The truth is that Europe, even after winning the war, is still as fragmented as ever—allies are divided into specific regions in the Polish territory, the French and the Soviets (despite being on the same side of an international conflict) are still world’s apart. The only major male character in the film, an insecure Jewish doctor, isn’t shy in admitting his bitterness toward the Catholics and Christians. It comes from years of deep-seated prejudice, culminating in the mass extermination of his people (a fate his parents are implied to have shared). Is his resentment unearned? How do we quantify how one should feel about another, be it an individual or a people? Put in their scenario, the nuns have every right to hate the men that did this to them, but their belief in God makes them hate themselves.
The destruction World War II left in its wake is unshakeable but, given enough time, not irreparable. What Fontaine examines in The Innocents is how we carry the guilt of our past into an uncertain future. The child each nun carries is like a burden of guilt, unwanted and contemptible. How can something so innocent be conceived from something so inhumane? Anne Fontaine has adapted this film from a true story, and what she does with the material is remarkable. Camera and editing manipulate the cold, sterile spaces into sanctuaries of repressed yearnings and expressed heartache. Fontaine’s greatest achievement is her assured voice which is never too comforting nor too cynical. She approaches the material not as a historian spouting hard facts, but an artist devoting herself to the inhuman ugliness of the subject and finding something hopeful, uncorrupted and undeniably human at its core.