By John Esther | July 5, 2016
Director: Anne Fontaine
Writers: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine Writer, Sabrina B. Karine, Philippe Maynial, Alice Vial
Starring: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Anna Próchniak, Helena Sujecka, Mira Maluszinska, Dorota Kuduk
Women for each other, God against nun.
Poland, December 1945. A group of Benedictine nuns sing praises to God. Ritual and simplistic, these notes offer comfort and peace. Suddenly, the harmonious hymns are pierced by a scream of agony. The scream is both literal and metaphorical, for these nuns of the Polish Church are agonized by what man, nature and God have put them through.
In response to the scream, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) seeks the help of a doctor — “not a Polish or Russian doctor.” This brings her to Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a doctor working for the French Red Cross.
Reluctant at first to help a nun, the leftist doctor is moved by Maria’s predicament and agrees to come back to the convent.
The nuns are possessed by a shocking secret.
Based on actual events, the latest film by director Anne Fontaine (How I Killed My Father; Coco after Chanel; Gemma Bovary), offers a positive sight of female solidarity in the most unlikely of places — without getting mawkish about it (unlike the upcoming Japanese film, My Little Sister).
A nonbeliever working to save the plight of believers (“God’s help is not enough”) — although many are in doubt — Mathilde earns the trust of these women who have wound up here for various sorts of reasons. Most importantly, she has earned the trust of Mother Abbess Jadwiga Oledska (the estimable Agata Buzek), a stern leader who is put in a “damned if you do, damned if you do not” situation as she tries to protect the nuns from society’s scourge. At any rate, her fate is sealed.
Mathilde also has a love interest in the name of Samuel (Vincente Macaigne), a fellow doctor who happens to be a rate Jew in post-WWII Poland. Their mutual-respecting relationship provides a narrative reprieve from the physical, emotional and existential plague over at the convent while also allowing The Innocents to have a more critical viewpoint of Poland’s role during WWII.
“The only Poles I liked were in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Samuel says. “Not one of them left.”
Thanks to the steady direction of Fontaine; the screenplay by Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine, Philippe Maynial and Alice Vial, plus the notes by Madeleine Pauliac (the doctor who inspired the story); and the excellent acting by Buzek and company; The Innocents — which resembles numerous post-WWII French literary and cinematic narratives, but with an atypical female edge — offers a harrowing yet hopeful picture of what good women (and one man) can do when they do choose to rebel against patriarchal power.