by Mitch F. Anderson
From its opening scene, Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents establishes itself as a film about a difficult topic, one that has remained relevant throughout our history and one that will likely remain relevant for generations to come; the reckoning of one’s beliefs and devotions in the face of a society that has seemingly rejected them. In The Innocents’ opening moments, a convent of nuns in 1945 Poland gathers to practice their hymnals. As they sing, a prolonged scream is heard from somewhere within the convent walls. As the screaming continues and grows even more pained and animalistic, the singing also continues, despite the visible discomfort of several of the nuns. It is a powerful, impressive metaphor, one whose placement at the very beginning of the film would seem almost too easy if the rest of the film’s dynamic portrayal of faith and devotion in relation to personal shame and societal pressure didn’t extend beyond simply “looking the other way”.
The film’s plot concerns members of the convent asking for the help of Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French Red Cross surgeon assisting Polish victims of the Holocaust. When Mathilde visits the convent, she makes a horrifying discovery: several of the sisters are in the late stages of pregnancy following an invasion by Soviet soldiers and their subsequent rapes of the sisters at the end of the War, and are increasingly unable to hide their pregnancies from the outside world. When the convent’s Reverend Mother (Agata Kulezsa) is confronted by Mathilde, an avowed atheist, about the situation, she tells her that the shame and scandal that would come with revealing the sisters’ circumstances and seeking help or justice would be overwhelming for the convent and damage its moral fiber beyond repair, reluctantly agreeing to arrange foster care for the infants once Mathilde helps deliver them in secret. Mathilde must also grapple with the affections of a fellow physician and whether or not to alert him the the nuns’ predicament, her own emotional awakening in the face of the nuns’ continued devotion, and the continued presence of the Soviet Army, keeping a close eye on the French’s aid effort and posing a threat to Mathilde should her plan be discovered.
There is no weak link in the film’s cast, with all actors giving performances that sidestep what these characters would be and how they would behave in a more simplistic, straightforward film. de Laâge, a French actress who between this and last year’s fantastic Breathe seems poised for an international breakout, embodies Mathilde with a multilayered sense of humanity minus any pluckiness or hotheaded confrontation, an embodiment of the long-held doctor’s creed to “first do no harm”. Kulezsa, a remarkable actress previously seen in 2014’s Ida, gives the Reverend Mother a true sense of weight and inner turmoil about the situation presented to her, raising her above simple “hero” or “villain” caricatures that dot most pop culture depictions. The lived-in dynamics she displays with the assorted actresses playing the convent’s sisters convey a deeper truth, and make the film’s underlying question of faith all the more difficult to examine: why wouldn’t a group of devout women assume that a horrible event like this was something their God wanted to happen to them?
Most impressively with material of this stature, Fontaine achieves a true blending of emotion and tone; though never a “light” watch, The Innocents invests the chilly weight its settings and circumstances deserve, matched by Fontaine’s Wintery frames that are enough the give the viewer a shiver, yet resists the trap of cold, expressionless misery that more often than not plays as dull to the viewer in films such as this. These characters have moments of true joy, and moments of utter tragedy and defeat. By its surprisingly powerful final scene, in which the film’s already multi-faceted title earns yet another dimension, Fontaine has proven herself a master of tone, and a keen observer of one of life’s basic truths; tragedy cannot exist without hope, and hope cannot exist without tragedy.
The Innocents is screening in the UICA Movie Theater August 26th – September 8th.