"The Innocents": Women in Wartime

Writers and film-makers continue to successfully mine stories stemming from World War 2. “The Innocents” is such a film—a Polish-French film by the director Anne Fontaine that takes place in December 1945. Based on real events as described by Madeleine Pauliac, a French Red Cross doctor who had served with French troops in war-torn Poland, the film illuminates the various crises of faith that befall a convent of nuns who have been ravaged by marauding Russian troops who forced their way into the monastery and raped the helpless women.   

Traumatized by their harrowing experiences, the nuns, who have taken vows of chastity, are incapable of dealing with the violations of their bodies, their spirits, and their vows. Even in the throes of giving birth, some of the women are in denial that they are pregnant, Others, those who have had some experience with men prior to entering the convent, fare slightly better. But none escapes the humiliation and shame of what has befallen them, no matter how unwarranted that shame might be.  

After being called to the convent to assist with the birth of the first of the babies, Mathilde (Lou de Laage), the doctor who is the central character, after performing a C-section returns to the hospital, only to be set upon at a Russian checkpoint by soldiers who swagger and joke with one another, saying: “She wants all of us.” What would have been a moment too horrific to view is interrupted by the arrival of a Soviet officer who allows her to proceed unmolested. For the viewer, this single graphic instance of the brutality and callousness of the men, serves as a reminder that women have long been thought of as the spoils of war.  

The question that looms large is how God, in all His mercy, could allow such a terrible thing to happen to these unprotected sisters. What is the meaning of this diabolical turn of events? And what’s to become of the children?

As the steely Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza) wrestles with this last question, she is above all concerned that this scandal—a convent filled with pregnant nuns—not become public, as it could shred the authority of the Catholic Church. As the film engages the viewer from moral, spiritual and institutional perspectives, it brings to mind more recent scandals and institutional crises involving the Catholic Church that have, indeed, contributed to a weakening of religious institutions. 

Filmed in muted tones by Caroline Champetier, the spare observational cinematography is magnificent—perfectly in keeping with the prayerful calm and simplicity of a Benedictine convent, the silence observed by the nuns at meals, and the Angelus sung at break of day, at noon, and at evensong.

If the upbeat ending is unexpected, “The Innocents” is a blistering war movie by talented women about other strong women looking out for one another and doing what needs to be done to survive. Highly recommended.

With the temperatures rising in New York, we're off for a bit of R & R. Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you back here, not next week, but the week after on Sunday the 24th. See you soon... à bientôt.