***1/2 out of ****
Not to be confused with the 1961 supernatural suspense classic, the new French/Polish film, The Innocents, tells the true story of a convent in 1945 Poland where multiple nuns have found themselves bearing children after suffering the sexual assaults of Russian soldiers. The story is mainly told through the eyes of a female Red Cross doctor who secretly comes to their aid.
The French doctor’s name is Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) who has become drained after a long voluntary devotion to the relief of war-torn Poland. Despite the world’s defeat of the Nazis, there is still no relief from the cruelty of oppressive authorities and the Soviet Red Army was no exception. This is very evident, when a nun visits the doctor, begging for a discrete visit to the convent where she discovers the atrocities put upon the women, which they are reluctant to expose.
The film becomes a story of compassion that must move against the obstacles of medical-aide regulations and the notion of sin. Some of the film’s most upsetting scenes revolve around the actions inflicted by the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), who believes she is saving the nuns from their shame before God.
Director Anne Fontaine, who made the critically acclaimed Coco Before Chanel in 2009, captures this troubling historical tale with a dreary and dim atmosphere of the cold convent and village with a vast snowy woodland between the two. There are times when this aesthetic seems like an unnecessary stylization that’s becoming too common in modern dramas, but it serves its purpose.
The story is well structured and the characters never lose a sense of realism, despite their archetypical roles. The movie almost feels like an extended episode of BBC’s Call the Midwife which dares to tackle heavier themes.
While all of this is admirable, I didn’t get a sense of payoff to all the ideas it introduces. For such troubling subject matter, I’m not sure if the movie owes us the spiritual resolution one might get from a more optimistic film, but audiences can feel safe from the kind of cynical attack someone like Lars von Trier would put in a film like this.
The movie exists to tell us a lesser-known story set during a time where we like to imagine a world of triumph, but some righteous people continued to live in a world of torment. This film is worthy of our attention.