“The Innocents” is one of those movies which just washes over you. Anne Fontaine has directed it in such a way to where it never calls attention to itself. Instead it just sucks you into its post-war setting to where you never question the attention paid to the period detail, and you enter the lives of these characters in the same way the movie’s protagonist does as you make the same discoveries as she while the story unfolds. It feels like it has been a long time since a movie has had that effect on me, so that makes this one rather unique.
The movie takes us back to December 1945 in Warsaw. The second World War has ended and Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a young French Red Cross doctor, is treating the last batch of patients who survived their time in the German camps. One day she comes into contact with Benedictine nun who begs her to visit the covenant she lives at, and it is there where Mathilde shockingly discovers several nuns who are pregnant, one of which is about to give birth. These nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers, and the covenant is desperate to keep these incidents as its inhabitants are fiercely private and eager to avoid shaming and persecution from the new anti-Catholic Communist government. But as their strongly held beliefs continually clash with harsh realities, they become reliant on Mathilde to help their sisters with a condition forced unto them.
“The Innocents” covers a part of history that many, including myself, were not aware of before. It was inspired by Madeleine Pauliac, a Red Cross doctor, who documented in her notes the story of these nuns who were raped by Soviet soldiers as much as 40 times in a row. It’s an infuriating crime that many will still not admit happened even though historians know full well that it did. To see it covered in this movie feels like an overdue recognition of the cruelness many women were forced to experience against their will. I came out of this movie angered at what happened to these nuns, and that’s the way I should have come out of it.
Fontaine’s previous films include “Gemma Bovery,” “Coco Before Chanel” and “The Girl from Monaco” Along with screenwriters Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer and Alice Vial, she has given us a tale where the views and beliefs of believers are forced to clash with those of non-believers. This is always a fascinating debate as our views on religion and God always differ in various ways. Because of this vicious crime that has been perpetrated, the nuns have to confront how their beliefs are threatened and forever changed by it. And then there’s Mathilde who is not a believer but shows no hesitation in helping those who are. This brings about many fascinating conversations which make you wonder if much has changed in the years since World War II.
I’m not familiar with Lou de Lou de Laâge’s work as an actress before this movie, but she is perfectly cast here as Mathilde. Here is a doctor, let alone a female one, who risks her life to help those who could be unfairly persecuted for reasons we would never accept today, and she barely bats an eye in the face of adversity. De Laâge is a natural as she makes Mathilde an especially brave character, but one who is simply doing her job to help those who need mending. Other doctors in that same situation might have stayed away in fear of severe consequences, but de Laâge gives us one who is not out to be a hero in the slightest as she is simply doing the job she was trained to do.
Vincent Macaigne also gives a fine performance as Mathilde’s superior and lover, Samuel. At first it looks like these two will have a relationship not unlike the one Peter Benton had with John Carter on “ER,” but theirs proves to be more complex than that. They fall for one another not out of lust but necessity as their lives may be snuffed out on the front lines before they know it, and that makes what they go through especially unpredictable. Macaigne makes Samuel into a doctor who could have easily fallen into clichéd conventions, but he turns him into a fully fleshed out character who is ready to overcome his deeply held prejudices to help those in need.
Then there’s Agata Kulesza who portrays Mère Abesse, the Mother Superior of the covenant. This is the movie’s most complex character as she struggles to keep all the nuns in line while committing rash actions to protect them from what she feels would be an unbearable derision. In another movie this would be a character you would come to seriously hate, but here she is a person doing what she can to keep her sisters in line with the faith while doing things they will come to hate her for. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Mère comes to show how that is the case.
In some ways “The Innocents” could have dug deeper into the themes it explores as the movie feels like it only goes so far. Also, its conclusion feels a bit too pat as such circumstances can never be easily solved in so simple a fashion. Still, a movie like this is an immersive experience which demands your attention in a way few others do. Many I know have a ridiculous aversion to movies with subtitles, but I invite them to put that to the side as this one covers a part of history that can no longer be ignored. In a day and age where women are still not considered equal to men, this one reminds us of how that should never be the case.
PLEASE NOTE: “The Innocents” will open on July 1st at The Landmark in West Los Angeles and on July 8th at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Edwards Westpark 8 in Orange County.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.