Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne
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Warsaw, December 1945: the Second World War is finally over and Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) – a young Red Cross doctor – is treating the last French survivors of the German camps. When a panicked Benedictine nun appears at the clinic one night begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent, what she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy.
A staunch communist and non-believer, Mathilde enters the sisters’ fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza). Fearing the shame of exposure, the hostility of the new anti-Catholic Communist government, and facing an unprecedented crisis of faith, the nuns increasingly turn to Mathilde as their belief and traditions clash with harsh realities.
And that is really what The Innocents is driving home – that reality is often stranger (maybe crueler) than fiction. The most poignant instance being that the film is based on the true story of Madeleine Pauliac – an actual Red Cross doctor who risked her own life helping 25 Polish nuns who were raped repeatedly in their convent by Soviet soldiers, which killed 20 through sustained injuries as well as advanced STDs, and left the survivors to face unwanted pregnancy.
Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Adore) the film moves forward at an excruciatingly glacial pace. Fontaine deliberately hovers for far too long over every painful detail of the characters’ experience, and therefore holds her audience emotionally hostage, unable to escape every unbearable moment suffered by these women. It’s definitely tough watching but a masterful move on Fontaine’s part, who demands that you not only watch their plight, but experience a small part of it, too.
The intensity of the story demands a lot from the actors, some of whom really struggle to get in touch with the intensely broken nature of their characters. Others, however, really rise to the challenge to deliver what may be the performances of their careers. Lou de Laâge, for example, is beautifully stone-like as the tenacious communista Mathilde, and it is thrilling to watch as the cracks in her façade start to appear as the stakes become higher.
Additionally, the bond between de Laâge’s and Agata Buzek’s characters is what really stays with you, having successfully communicated the strength of their connection with almost no dialogue. The main victory though, belongs to Agata Kulesza who plays the supporting role of Mother Abbess; the aggressively devout and unforgiving head nun whose vitriolic faith is both infuriating and glorious. She gives the film that grey area of duality between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that gives the story a real three-dimensional quality.
Though not all parties pull it off, and it’s maybe a tad too long, The Innocents is a film that raises important questions that according to Fontaine “continue to haunt our societies”, demonstrating what radical fundamentalism can lead to. Theology and politics aside, this is a visually breathtaking piece of cinema that despite its strong message of morality, gets completely upstaged by the bleak, crunchy landscape – a must see for both history and cinematography nerds alike.