A closed community, cut off from the outside world and following a strict discipline is prime territory for drama. If it’s religious, and single sex, then so much the better. One of the best examples was Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), and now it has a companion piece in Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, released on Friday.
Like Ida, the setting is the freezing Polish winter and it’s concerned with events during World War II, this time in the immediate aftermath when the country was occupied by the Russians. French doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage) is working at a Red Cross hospital when a nun from the local convent begs her for help. Visiting the convent, she discovers a woman in labour and several heavily pregnant nuns. It’s the result of a raid by Russian troops and the nuns are struggling to reconcile their situations with their faith. Ultimately, it’s the young doctor who proves to be their only hope. And she’s a fierce atheist.
In their own eyes, the nuns have committed just about every sin in the book: they’re full of shame at having lost their virginity, and full of fear that they’ll be damned for evermore. The fact that it was forced on them in the most brutal of ways is immaterial. Those that aren’t pregnant are suffering in other ways and, in one way, they’re the innocents of the title.
But so are their babies, who didn’t ask to be born and are literally innocent of their parentage. Some arrive quietly, others more dramatically and the entrance of one of them is gasp-making. The quietest nun in the convent suddenly gives birth unaided, sat on the edge of the bed in her cell. Nobody had any idea she was pregnant and, from the way she gave birth and the look of shock and terror on her face, neither did she. She rejects the baby and you fear for both of them.
It’s a story of birth and re-birth, of faith blown apart and put back together by the least likely of people, and of female strength and solidarity. And a true story as well, based on the experiences of Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac, who looked after the nuns in a Polish convent after the end of World War II. Just like the nuns, and with more than a little irony, Mathilde also works within a strict regime, that of the hospital, and visits the convent in secret for some time: her presence in the convent is concealed as well, as outsiders are not permitted. All the nuns, including Maria (Agata Buzek), with whom Mathilde forms a friendship, have to follow the rules, regardless of the consequences.
What they don’t realise is that Mathilde is brought even closer to them by a personal experience with the Russians. She feels the same fear they did when she’s confronted by a group of soldiers on a deserted road at night and is very nearly raped. It’s only stopped by the arrival of their commanding officer.
This profoundly moving film is made all the more so because of the restraint with which it’s made, something reflected in the performances, the screenplay and, most remarkably, the cinematography. Using sludgy browns and greys set against the white of the freezing Polish snow, it’s just a flicker away from black and white and has a clarity and directness which goes hand in hand with the subject matter. Yet underneath that restraint is raging emotional turmoil – and it breaks out occasionally, be it in the screams of the nuns giving birth or the tears silently trickling down Maria’s face.
Full of poignant performances, especially from Lou de Laage herself and Agata Kulesza as a memorably tortured Mother Superior, The Innocents manages to be humbling, moving and inspirational all at the same time. Which is no mean achievement.
The Innocents is released on Friday, 11th November and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 10th November.