2016, PG-13, 115 min. Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Anna Próchniak.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 5, 2016
The wintry-hued The Innocents imagines the unimaginable: the rape and impregnation of several Polish nuns by Russian soldiers in a rural convent outside Warsaw at the end of the Second World War. It’s a conception that’s anything but immaculate. The film’s snow-dappled setting, exquisitely captured in the shadows-and-light cinematography of Caroline Champetier, icily accentuates the horror of la guerre, particularly for those who possess a virtuous goodness incompatible with the times. The monochromatic habits of the holy sisters, which conceal their delicate condition from the outside world, almost melt into the stark black-and-white surroundings of the nunnery; it’s as if they’re disappearing into the despair of their own shameful fate. But for the assistance of Mathilde (de Laâge), a young French Red Cross intern who agrees to secretly treat the expectant mothers, the medical welfare of these women and their infants would be left to God’s mercy. Though she’s a Communist sympathizer and avowed nonbeliever, Mathilde forms an emotional bond with many of the abbey’s traumatized residents, particularly the compassionate Sister Maria (Buzek), whose frantic entreaty initially brings the young doctor to the convent to deliver the first baby. A sisterhood of a different kind develops between the two women, one as powerful (perhaps more so) as any religious vows could beget.
This weighty French/Polish production is chock-full of moral dilemmas borne from its unthinkable scenario. At times, it’s not an easy experience. Director Fontaine has faltered in previous efforts, such as the 2013 MILF misfire Adore, but the humanism on display here is precise and unsentimental. Although there’s little to fault in this film (perhaps, a tad too subdued?), it falls just shy of greatness. Both de Laâge and Buzek give compelling and empathetic performances, but it’s Kulesza’s supporting turn as the tormented Mother Superior that dominates The Innocents. Horrified at the prospect of a scandal, the abbess cloaks her irrational notions of sin (Roman Catholicism 101) in the guise of carrying out a duty to protect her flock. Shockingly, she’s capable of an evil even greater than what any Bolshevik rapist has inflicted on the film’s virginal (and in the rare case, more worldly) victims. And yet, Kulesza elicits a bitter sympathy for this woman of God, despite the utter ungodliness of her actions. That’s no small feat. Though you want so badly to hate her, to vilify her for her small-mindedness, you can’t help but recognize, heartbreakingly enough, that she – like the others – is just another casualty of the monstrosity called war.