One of the consequences of the Soviet Army’s inexorable push into eastern Europe as the German Wehrmacht melted away was the barbarism committed by its soldiers on the civilian populations. Resistance was met with violence. Women, young and old, were raped. As The Innocents shows, the habit did not spare nuns, for whom pregnancy was a grievous violation of their vows. Abortion wasn’t an option – at least as this French film shows. But bringing the child to term compounded the sense of sin. This French-Polish-Belgian co-production isn’t an exciting piece of filmmaking; the drama amounts to, “Will the nuns thaw the chill in their hearts?” It does, however, resist yielding to sentimentality and makes quiet incisive points about women doing hazardous work.
The opening sequence is the most powerful: a Benedictine nun hurrying through a snow-covered wood, stopped only by children cheerfully asking for alms. Her destination is a Red Cross clinic. A French nurse named Mathilde offers to accompany her. The source of the nun’s anxiety becomes clear when they return to the convent: one of the nun’s colleagues is in labor. Her mien professional at all times, Mathilde does her duty. As played by Lou de Laâge, Mathilde doesn’t wear her atheism on her sleeve or use it as cudgel with which to beat these nuns; she has too much to do. Childbirth in devastated war-torn Poland, where supplies are few, can be fatal. She has no patience with the forbidding Mother Superior, a literalist who prefers an herbalist to penicillin and regards the horror perpetuated on her charges as a way of building character – “a test of strength” in her words. Ida‘s Agata Kulesza plays the abbess, and it isn’t typecasting so much as an illumination: how an artist can paint another haystack in different light. Her conception of duty repels compassion, for obedience and compassion are incompatible. She won’t even keep the children in the convent. “Her aunt is pious and has many children,” she remarks about one waif she gave away, as if the first half of the sentence were enough.
The strength of The Innocents lies in how it tests these women’s divergent takes on duty. As residents of the convent realize they’re pregnant or approach childbirth, Mathilde confronts a bewildering range of reactions, from the cheerful nun who hopes to marry her Russian soldier rapist to the older woman who recoils from the slightest touch as if she’d been touched with burning fingers (non-Catholics may not understand the symbolism of wimples and robes; even nuns who entered the order as widows must renounce, as brides of Christ, the faintest physical contact with men). Meanwhile she has to maintain the fiction of a personal life. She sleeps with a colleague (Vincent Macaigne) confused by her reluctance to commit. She herself must guard against provocations. In the film’s most harrowing sequence, Russian soldiers – perhaps the same company that invaded the convent – pull her over and attempt to rape her and might have succeeded if not for an intervening officer, whose manner suggests he may have tried himself under different circumstances.
Anne Fontaine directed Audrey Tatou in a misbegotten biopic about Coco Chanel; Fontaine treated the material as if directing The Silence. Taut and terse, The Innocents is an improvement. Characters don’t make speeches; we are aware, no more or less, that a nurse in a war zone faces danger that no man will (it comes as a surprise when Mathilde reveals on request that she’s “not a Party member”). Living in a time when the culture has at last started listening to the stories women have told about rape and abuse gives The Innocents resonance – and poignancy. Doing one’s duty, The Innocents suggests, is no shield against hostile forces; doing one’s duty may invite those hostile forces.