French director Anne Fontaine has joined forces with Polish filmmakers to create what is, in my judgment, the best film of 2016 so far, one that should be of interest to all Catholics and should be a sure contender for Best Foreign Film at next year’s Oscars. The Innocents is a welcome relief from the usual anti-Church movies Hollywood churns out, except, of course, when there’s a demon to be exorcized, at which point – to borrow the tagline from a failed summer reboot – Who you gonna call?
There are demons here too, but they’re not otherworldly. As Miss Fontaine’s film begins two phrases appear on screen: “Based upon true events” and “Poland, December 1945.” The “demons” are Russian soldiers who storm a Polish convent and rape the nuns.
One of the film’s greatest virtues is its attention to a part of Polish history that was repressed during the Warsaw Pact years when it was dangerous, in Poland, to speak ill of the Soviets. The Innocents tells one small but horrific part of that history, and it does so with admirable restraint and total conviction, especially given that in those actual events the soldiers not only raped the nuns but also murdered twenty.
These horrors have long been known, but too little spoken of, written about, or filmed. As Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky wrote in KGB: The Inside Story (1990), during 1944-1945, “Poland was repeatedly ravaged by. . .roundups and terror tactics. . .including the burning of entire villages, [and the] murder and the rape of women and girls on an enormous scale.” In fact, as many as 100,000 Polish women were raped by Russian soldiers, former POWs, and other Soviet apparatchiks during the “liberation” of Poland.
But please note: Miss Fontaine does not show these crimes. We begin to learn about the horrors experienced by the nuns only when, during the sisters’ singing of the Divine Office, we hear a scream – one of the nuns is in labor.
A bold novice sneaks out of the convent and goes to fetch a woman doctor from a nearby French Red Cross hospital. Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (played by French actress Lou de Laâge) is reluctant to follow the young nun back to the convent, but when she does she is astonished at what she finds. The Innocents never attempts an actuarial accounting of just how many sisters are pregnant. The film is not about numbers but people. However, the timing means that when the first nun gives birth, the others must quickly follow. Dr. Beaulieu rolls up her sleeves.
The Innocents is also about theodicy: How do we justify God’s permission of evil? The film poses the question in a number of ways, although it hardly needs to beyond the facts at hand, and occasionally risks losing its signature restraint in the philosophizing. Still it’s perfectly understandable that the film’s characters – the nuns and their physician – would speak about it. But though the question is posed, no answer is ever spoken, because for Miss Fontaine, answers are found in actions.
Those can come in prayer, acts of courage, and expressions of piety, but, greatest of all, in love. And, in the end, acts of love overcome pain and shame and doubt and despair.
Fontaine’s direction is subdued and justly so. Under someone else’s hand and eye, The Innocents (originally titled Agnus Dei) could have become luridly macabre. But Miss Fontaine keeps the film’s focus on the cloistered women and the physician who helps them.
The pace of the film is largely the pace of convent life, and the overall mood of The Innocents is set by cinematographer Caroline Champetier (“Of Gods and Men”), whose palette is so somber that the grey convent walls, the sisters’ Benedictine habits, and the bleak winter exteriors almost make the film seem shot in black and white. And Fontaine is not afraid of the stillness that helps define cloistered life – not to mention that silence creates tension: some are silent because of shame; others long to shatter the silence.
Miss de Laâge is superb as Dr. Beaulieu, as is Polish actress Agata Kulesza as Mother Superior. But the film’s soul is the performance of another Pole, Agata Buzek. She plays Sister Maria, the Mother Superior’s strong right hand. Few actors have ever moved so fluidly and seamlessly within a single role among icy efficiency, spiritual passion, and deep despair. For her eyes alone, she deserves a Best Supporting Actress nod.
It’s held as a first principle of moviemaking that characters must develop – they cannot be unchanged at the end, whether for good or ill. The transformations here are stunning, albeit, in the film’s style, subtle. Dr. Beaulieu has spent a night in the convent and is awaked by the singing of the nuns, probably reciting either Prime or Terce. She finds her way to the choir and notes with a kind of joy how faith transforms the sisters’ faces. After all they’ve been through. These are not madwomen falling back upon some delusional coping mechanism. They’re Catholic nuns, realists of a higher reality. There is hope here: nadzieja in Polish; l’espérance in French.
Another cinematic principle is climax: the thing that ties up loose ends and propels us to The End. Here it’s like the two masks of Greek drama: Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy), if, that is, we understand “comedy,” as the Greeks (and Shakespeare) did: ends in joy. Dr. Beaulieu and Sister Maria come up with a joyous plan that saves bodies and souls. Mother Superior, however, retreats into isolation, despondently awaiting death, because, as Maria says, perhaps defining theodicy: “Behind all the joy lies the Cross.”
The Innocents, released in a very limited distribution, has an MPAA rating of PG-13. There is no nudity (although two characters are shown abed), and there is one, short violent scene – an attempted rape that is foiled. And childbirth does involve some blood.