Based on real events, The Innocents has the kind of premise so, er, pregnant with dramatic possibilities, it would be hard not to make it compelling. Under Anne Fontaine’s surprisingly assured direction, it fairly brims with a potent force that constantly threatens to burst through its formal rigour.
Set in 1945, the story takes place in a convent in a remote area of Russian-occupied Poland. A French intern, Mathilde (Lou de Laage), working for the Red Cross closeby, is persuaded by one of the Polish nuns to come to the convent.
There she finds that another of the nuns is heavily pregnant and has become ill. Treating the nun, however, proves problematic. Firstly, she won’t allow anyone to touch her, believing this to be an unforgivable sin. To make matters even tougher, Mother Abesse (Agata Kulesza) is against any outsider setting foot in the convent. Any word of a pregnant nun would cause the place to be closed down.
So the second time that Mathilde visits, it is in secret, with Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), going against authority and smuggling the medical intern inside.
It soon becomes clear that there is a much larger problem housed within the convent. Many of the nuns are pregnant, a result of the Russian forces abusing their newfound power in more ways than one
It’s much too large a problem for Mathilde, but asking for help is not an option. Mother Abesse has begrudgingly approved of her visits, but has bargained Mathilde’s silence by threatening that any further intervention would jeapordise the safety of the nuns and their unborn children.
So Mathilde is working around the clock, moonlighting as a nurse at the convent in addition to her full time work with the Red Cross. She can’t tell a soul, not even the sweet-natured Jewish doctor she reports to. He doesn’t understand her secrecy, which is a liability both professionally and to their sexual relationship. Her frequent comings and goings also put her at risk of running into the aforementioned lawless Russian patrolmen.
Superficially The Innocents recalls Ida, which won the Foreign Film Oscar three years ago. Both films star Agata Kulesza, are set in Poland some decades past, and feature nuns in central roles. The Innocents may not be in black and white, like Ida, but it’s close to it. Most of the colour has been drained from the screen, especially the snow covered backgrounds which Caroline Champetier’s beautiful cinematography captures with stark clarity.
The film is equally attractive to the ears, with prolific composer Gregoire Hetzel’s heavenly score enhanced by established pieces by Rossini, Handel and some well chosen hymns.
The story is based on the experiences of French Red Cross doctor Madeleine Pauliac in Poland after World War II, as recalled by her nephew, Philippe Maynial. It’s a premise loaded with suppressed drama – from the nuns who consider they have been condemned to damnation for being abused, to the mother superior who won’t allow them to be helped. This doesn’t always make for comfortable viewing but despite the discomfort, it’s always compelling.
Mathilde is the conduit by which we witness events, as well as the film’s heroine, de Laage is luminous in the role. It’s a far cry from her turn as a manipulative brat in Breathe from last year’s festival.
And for writer director Anne Fontaine, this is also a far cry from her previous work, which include the truly godawful English language Adore, and Gemma Bovary, as well as the so-so Coco Before Chanel. Where did this come from? The Innocents is not only her best work, but it’s one of the best films of the year.
The Innocents is currently screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee