It’s an overused term in describing films of significant moral and emotional weight, but the word that comes to mind regarding Anne Fontaine’s unique WWII drama The Innocents is “devastating.” Based on true events, the story follows a young French Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laâge) in post-WWII Poland as she becomes the makeshift midwife for a group of nuns who have become pregnant by way of abusive Soviet troops. The nuns find themselves caught in an impossible situation, their vows of chastity robbed from them, forced to give birth to the children of their abusers. Shame, fear, and hope all reside within the walls of the convent as the nuns attempt to navigate both fidelity to God and the new vocation of motherhood.
It’s purposefully enigmatic as to who the titular “innocents” are in this film, but whether it’s the nuns, the babies birthed from their wombs, the orphaned children roaming the streets of Poland, or the survivors of the Holocaust, the film shows great care and compassion to foster empathy without victimizing. Anne Fontaine has crafted a wonderfully humane film, pointing out the good, bad, ugly, and beautiful of human beings, scene after scene. In one drive from the convent, Mathilde the doctor is stopped by a group of drunken Soviet soldiers who attempt to rape her. Shaken and distraught, she returns to the convent to spend the night, where she is welcomed and comforted. It’s a remarkable contrast between horror and hospitality, violence and grace, and Mathilde’s harrowing experience allows her to foster greater sympathy for the nuns’ experience.
The theodicy question of God’s will and the problem of evil and suffering is ever-present without becoming suffocating. Various nuns have different responses to their plight. Some suffer quietly and bitterly; others abandon their life in the convent through different means. Still others hold fast to their vows, their faith shaken but not abandoned. “Faith is 24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope,” says one nun to the French doctor. It’s a line that sticks with you–faith in these circumstances is not easy, but that single minute of hope and the experience of God’s presence is enough to sustain. The seemingly agnostic doctor is fascinated by these nuns, and the film paints a generous portrayal of both the religious and non-religious.
The cinematography beautifully captures the wintry gray of the snowy Polish countryside, the cavernous convent hallways, and the barren rooms with a single crucifix on the taupe-colored walls. The black-and-white attire of the nuns both blends and bursts from this grayed world, a world where theological questions about human suffering can barely be uttered between the cries and groans of childbirth. A repeated shot of a nun walking through the snow-covered trees outside the convent captures this moral complexity–this traveler must navigate slowly, plodding steadily forward in the coldness of the environment.
I thought of numerous Scripture passages as the film progressed, but one particularly stands out: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). The purest of religions practices a devout holiness in stark contrast to the surrounding world while also fostering an ethos of grace and justice for the poor and oppressed, the marginalized and forgotten, the suffering and the lonely. The Innocents embodies this pure religion in remarkable–and devastating–ways. As such, it’s one of the most powerful and beautiful films of 2016.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4370784/