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France/Poland 2016
Directed by
Anne Fontaine
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Innocents

Synopsis: In December 1945, a junior female Red Cross doctor, Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), is caring for French soldiers in Poland when a young nun appears and pleads with her to come to a convent to save the life of a sister who lies gravely ill.  Mathilde goes to the convent where she discovers a novitiate in labour and a terrible story – many of the nuns are pregnant after having been raped by their Russian “liberators”.

The Innocents, which is based on real events, tells a tragic story with commendably austere realism. Well, for the most part but we’ll come to that.  

Much of the film is set within the spare, rusticated confines of the convent, whose comfortless setting of bare walls and minimal furniture is compounded by the snow-covered wintry wastes surrounding it. Stylistically it is reminiscent in many ways of Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 film Ida, a clearly influential source which director Anne Fontaine acknowledges with the casting of Agata Kulesza who played the aunt in Pawlikowski’s film as the Mother Abbess who is desperate to save the convent’s reputation.

Underlying the austerity, however, is fear, its source being revealed quite early in the piece once the Abbess’s secret is discovered by Mathilde.  It is an extraordinary, heart-rending revelation and Fontaine and her writers, Sabrina Karine and Alice Vial, bring home both the emotional and the philosophical ramifications of the situation with telling force.  Here we not only have young women, most of them virgins, forced into motherhood in the most heinous of ways, but they are “brides of Christ” who have taken a vow of chastity because of their faith in God’s love. All this is quite alien to Mathilde, who is not only a rationalist but (as we are told somewhat excessively) who was raised a Communist, Despite this difference she feels a strong empathy for the unfortunate women.

In the lead role Lou de Laâge is not too beautiful to be believable as an Army medic and she brings a level-headed intelligence and lively compassion to her character that shows as much in her passing affair with a colleague (Vincent Macaigne) and in her relationship with Maria (Agata Buzek), the nun who originally came to seek her as it does when in a medical capacity she is looking after the novitiates, most of whom are terrified by what has happened to them

Whilst Fontaine handles all this with both skill and empathy unfortunately in the latter part of the film she falls back on the reassuring pattern of mainstream French film with a resolution designed to relieve the pain of what has gone before. Perhaps a salve for some audiences but also a decision that dissipates the film’s harrowing intensity and undermines its integrity, Were it not for this ill-decision, The Innocents might have one of the films of the year,    

 

 

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