At the end of the Second World War, a young French doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) finds a Covent home to a group of nuns some of whom are in different stages of pregnancy. Because of these women’s faith, the discovery is forced to be kept a secret which hinders Mathilde’s ability to do her job as she can’t seek assistance from fellow doctors, leaving her with a difficult job in very testing circumstances.
Anne Fontaine’s film, Les Innocentes (English title: The Innocents) tells an important, harrowing story, a type of story that’s easily forgotten among all the horror that occurred during and up to the Second World War. The brutal story about the terrible ordeal that these Polish nuns went through is handled with remarkable restraint and sensitivity by director Anne Fontaine who spares us from having to go through the nightmare of the Soviet troops raping the nuns. However, the film doesn’t lose any of its power by leaving these scenes out and even though we never see these horrific scenes, the event in question does not get pushed to the background as this traumatic event is still at a very forefront of the picture. The film examines the effect of rape during the war periods and how epidemic it was as many suffered at the hands the Soviet troops. The attack still lingers horribly in the air as evident when footsteps of Soviet soldiers can be heard on the floor below the nuns are overcome with fear.
Like Of Gods and Men before it, The Innocents is a powerful examination of faith. The nun’s faith teaches them to feel shame for what has happened to them, and this causes many of them to question their faith but for others this faith leads them to denial and even refusal to seek medical attention to save their selves from damnation for the sins they have supposedly committed. This may be frustrating to certain viewers but the faith of these nuns is also shown to have beautiful side, their songs of praise are haunting in their splendour and the sisterly bonds built between the nuns in this terrible time is overwhelmingly profound. This examination of the nun’s sisterly bonds takes away something from the harrowing nature of the film, giving it an element of hope.
Many of the important characters are multi-layered, some wrestling with their faith, some use their faith to convince themselves what they are doing is right and others are risking everything to help those in their dire moments. Agata Kulesza’s performance as the conflicted Mother Superior, whose motivations are, to an extent, understandable, is superb and Lou de Laâge as Mathilde Beaulieu is perfect as the film’s emotional centrepiece. The cinematography, the film was shot by Caroline Champetier who also worked on Of Gods and Men, captures the sparse, featureless landscapes which mirrors the bleakness of the times.
The Innocents is an exceptional piece of cinema, raising awareness about the horrors those behind the lines suffered and raising awareness of those whose stories are often forgotten in a time of war. With death and destruction being found in many European cities, towns and villages it is easy for events, even of this horrific nature, to go unheard of.