Poland, December 1945. It’s less than a year since the end of the second World War. A nun bursts into the makeshift headquarters of the French Red Cross, which is there to find, care for, and repatriate the French who remained in Poland. She tries to get one of the doctors, a young woman named Mathilde, played by Lou de Laage, to help her, but not understanding Polish, Mathilde tells her to go find the Polish Red Cross. Later, however, the doctor looks out a window and sees the nun still there, praying in the snow. Changing her mind, she takes her in a truck to a nearby convent, and thus begins the perilous adventure of The Innocents, a film by Anne Fontaine, inspired by the real life story of French doctor and Resistance member Madeleine Pauliac.
At the convent, Mathilde is taken to a room where a young woman is having terrible birth pains. She meets the stern Mother Superior, played by Agata Kulesza, and her assistant, Sister Maria, played by Agata Buzek, who luckily speaks French well. It is a breech birth, and Mathilde must perform a Caesarean with only an oil lamp for light. The birth is a success, but the nuns insist that Mathilde cannot tell anyone about this. She asks to come back the next day to check on mother and baby, and Maria reluctantly agrees.
The truth eventually emerges—this strict nunnery, where the sisters spend the days austerely singing their prayers in Latin, was violated by Russian soldiers. The nuns were repeatedly raped, and many of them are pregnant. Mathilde must find a way to continue caring for the nuns, while concealing what she’s doing from her superiors at the Red Cross.
The film depicts the crises of faith that has descended on the nuns because of the terrible trauma they’ve suffered, and the shame they experience at their condition. Sister Maria in particular has trouble reconciling her belief in God with the suffering she has witnessed and endured. Even more dramatic is the role of the Mother Superior, who falls into a grim sense of martyrdom while she tries desperately to protect her charges.
At the center of the story, of course, is Mathilde, whose diminutive stature conceals great strength and toughness. She is a non-believer, from a Communist family, but she finds herself committed to the well-being of these women, even at the cost of being disciplined by the Red Cross officers for her unexplained absences. She even keeps the secret from the weary but sympathetic fellow doctor, played by Vincent Macaigne, with whom she sometimes shares her bed. It’s a dangerous game, because the Soviet Army is still out there, still abusing civilians, and impatient with anyone getting in their way.
Fontaine’s direction is patient and steady. The visual texture of the film conveys the feeling of winter and isolation with shadows and dark blues. Every character is treated seriously, without piety, or pity, for that matter. The Innocents takes us through a dark night of the soul with a sense of gravity and grace.