Faith, for some, is able to keep things together when they would otherwise fall helplessly apart. Faith is something some people wish they had more of, but very few would claim to have enough. Faith is powerful and energetic and persistent and tenacious, but it cannot mend all wounds and faith cannot save all it touches. In the newest film from French visionary Anne Fontaine, the idea of faith is both revered and questioned but remains present at each turn, effecting each and every life in this harrowing tale.
The setting is 1945 Poland, a time of redemption and rebuilding in the years following the Second World War. We enter a snowy, desolate landscape and are thrust into the world of a dilapidated convent as a group of nuns complete one of their several daily prayers. The action begins when one of the nuns wordlessly sneaks off into the nearby town to illicit help from a young Red Cross nurse by the name of Mathilde. This long, mostly silent scene is both serene and disquieting. It’s hard to tell why this nun is seeking help outside of the convent, but given the time period and her brazenness, there exists a palpable sense of foreboding that establishes the general mood for much of the film.
The truth, which we soon learn, is as heinous as anything one could imagine. As it turns out, the nun was seeking help for a fellow nun who was about to give birth. Ashamed, the de facto head of the convent, Mother Superior, accepts the help but is wary of letting strangers into the convent even for such a worthy cause. The source of her shame, we soon learn, is that there are several nuns currently pregnant, all by way of the atrocious rape performed by soldiers who took the convent by storm some months ago. To the modern viewer, and in some ways to Mathilde, this sense of shame is misplaced and difficult to understand; nuns are not meant to get pregnant — but surely one would understand the circumstances.
This sense of shame the victims suffer illustrates important points to a modern audience. These nuns, with their hard-line prudence, serve to amplify the suffering of the shame the raped women endure. In fact, they are so reticent to break the rules of the habit that some refuse help from the nurse, because of how physically intimate she must become with them in order to perform her duties.
Fontaine paints a vibrant picture of how different the responses of such horror can be, especially when ingrained with such fierce faith and belief. Some of the nuns remain unchanged in their devotion while others, especially the second-in-command Nun Maria, are understandably shaken to their core, unable to understand how to keep faith in a God who would allow such heartbreak.
Mathilde, who serves as the viewers’ surrogate throughout the film, also offers interesting insight. She is, after all, much more the modern woman than the seemingly ancient women of the cloth. Mathilde is young and beautiful and carries on a casual but sweet relationship with a kind, lovelorn Red Cross doctor. At first Mathilde is helpful and kind but also somewhat removed from the plight of the nuns. That is until she has her own run-in with an abusive soldiers who, if not stopped by a superior officer, will have had their way with her. This turn of events makes the mission much more personal and affecting to Mathilde, who becomes a hero figure to the nuns.
The Innocents is very much a story about what is going on beneath the surface. Like the spare set pieces, reserved direction, and the mostly vacant landscape of post-war Poland, it’s a film about reaction more than action. We are spared horrifying flashback sequences, but are given an unflinching and severe look at how horribly the brutality affected all whom it touched. Faith can do a lot for these young women, but it cannot replace the innocence stolen from them.
The Innocents Blu-ray DVD features include an extended interview with writer / director Jane Fontaine, who expands upon many of the themes woven throughout the narrative, touching on specific choices made and the reasons why, giving us a full picture of the creative process. Similarly, the behind the scene featurette goes into the filming process and touches on the Polish setting and the convent itself.