Reviewed by GREG KING
Stars: Lou De Laage, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Vincent Macaigne.
This French/Polish production looks at the horrors of war and the consequences of war from a different perspective. The Innocents is inspired by a little-known incident that happened in Poland at the end of WWII.
The setting is a secluded convent outside Warsaw. A convent should have been a place of refuge and a safe haven from the horrors of war, but instead it became a place of terror. When the Russian troops liberated Poland from the Germans they brutally and repeatedly raped many of the younger nuns in the convent. Now several of them are pregnant; they are scared, ashamed, and feel that their God has abandoned them. They wrestle with issues of faith and belief in God’s will. The mother superior (Agata Kulesza, from the grim Polish drama Ida, etc) wants to keep these events a secret for fear that it will damage their reputation.
But the nuns cannot reconcile their faith with their pregnancy, and are ill-equipped to cope. They find help from a young French nurse Mathilde (Lou De Laage, from The Wait, etc), who works at a nearby French Red Cross station helping wounded soldiers. She regularly visits the convent to check on the nun’s health, and even delivers one baby via caesarean section.
The rigid and cold and initially disapproving sister Maria (Agata Buzek) forms a reluctant alliance with Mathilde in relation to the care of the nuns. She is stubborn and judgemental, but she is also pragmatic enough to realise that the nuns need some sort of support to get through this crisis.
Screenwriters Sabrina B Karine and Alice Vial have given us a rather dark tale full of horror, but there are also some lighter, more optimistic touches and touches of black humour to lighten the tone. The Innocents (aka Agnus Dei in some territories) is a rather grim and harrowing drama, and marks a change of pace for director Anne Fontaine following her previous film Adore, which explored the taboo subject of teen sexuality. Here she explores the darker nature of human nature through the actions of the Russian soldiers, but she also shows us the more compassionate nature of people like Mathilde who acts out of altruism. Fontaine directs with a sense of restraint and compassion that makes the film more powerful and affecting. Fontaine brings a palpable sense of outrage and horror to the material. She maintains a slow pace throughout that allows audiences to become fully invested in the characters and their fate.
Fontaine makes the most of the austere location and grim setting of the convent to add a rather bleak tone. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Of Gods And Men, etc) uses a drab, muted bluish palette that gives the film a rather cold and harsh visual surface. Joanna Macha’s production design is also excellent and captures the claustrophobic interior and terrifying environment within the walls of the convent.
The film’s treatment of the clash between religion, faith and violence will remind audiences of Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men, in which a group of monks were under siege from Muslim fundamentalists. That film also shares a few thematic similarities with The Innocents. Fontaine draws excellent performances from her cast. De Laage brings calm authority and a sense of quiet assurance to her performance and suffuses Mathilde with a strong sense of compassion and empathy. Busek brings an icy quality to her role as the stubborn Sister Maria. Kulesza has a steely quality to her that suits the character. Vincent Macaigne is the only male in the primarily female cast, and he is good as Samuel, a Jewish colleague of Mathilde’s, who becomes involved in helping her at the convent.
The Innocents is a powerful but grim and harrowing film that is hard to forget.