A CHALLENGING exploration of nuns in post-war Poland is the focus point for The Innocents, a difficult but rewarding piece from French director Anne Fontaine that wholly deserves any praise for which it receives.
In the winter of 1945 following the Allied victory, a group of nuns live in an area that is occupied by the Soviet forces. On one day, a French Red Cross volunteer Mathilde (Lou de Laage) arrives in Poland having been sent to treat those living in the post-war land.
Her mission brings her into direct contact with a nun who requests her help after a nun goes into labour. It dawns however that the nun is one of several who have been impregnated following previous rapes by the soldiers in control of their territory.
With the coldly acting Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) determined to ensure that the information remains confidential, Mathilde is entrusted to nurse those pregnant solely, secretly hiding her work from her own superiors.
As time progresses, Mathilde gradually integrates with the nuns but at a time where brutal troops lurk and authoritarian figures inside the church pose as a threat to those in need.
Watching the film is not going to be an easy thing for some people but by the end, one cannot find anything to fault with this.
The setting makes for an interesting view first of all as it depicts a time when the war is over and people are supposed to be safe and secure. Instead what we see is an area blighted by problems which suggest that peace is far from there. What we view may be on a different scale with the elements of war, but stands as an outrage nevertheless.
We only hear via reference how the nuns have been made pregnant and even then, it is chilling to see that the Soviet troops supposed to be protecting these people continue with their reign of terror. In one scene Mathilde is sexually assaulted as she passes through to get back to the Red Cross, only saved by a disgusted superior officer.
Even later on when the troops storm the convent and are only prevented from whoever knows what by a lie that the nuns are in quarantine, it illustrates the dangers that surround them.
Here there is a viewpoint of (mostly) good people being surrounded by troops aware of what they are capable of but the fact there lies a more dangerous aspect in the convent suggests something universal, even in the apparent safest areas. There is a terror that hangs about and often, Fontaine brings a sense of tension where any source of danger could come in an instant and even Mathilde might not be there to prevent it.
The Mother Superior is portrayed by Kulesza, who ironically plays a nun having starred in the wonderful Ida where she played the eponymous novice nun’s aunt. Her Superior is a very icy matriarchal figure who relentlessly overrules anybody who attempts to speak out against her. Surrounded by troops suggests the villainy couldn’t be more close but the real villain here lies with her, someone who becomes responsible for a reprehensible act later in the film. It is thanks to a sensitive direction from Fontaine that we feel horror and yet she earns praise is for depicting evil with a careful handling of what is observed.
Fontaine succeeds in not only showing the worst in people, irrespective of position, but to show that there is a good in people, mainly in the main character of Mathilde. Going from unsuspecting nurse to near-victim to saviour, de Laage is a joy to watch at times and cements her position with this as an actress to look out for, doing the sort of works Juliette Binoche does.
A storyline in which Mathilde manages a working relationship with a Jewish colleague who becomes a lover is no distraction and allows us to get a glimpse of the life of our heroine, in work and out. In one scene, she brings him to the nuns when the births occur, introducing himself to the surprised nuns by saying there are more of him out there. It allows it to give a backstory to supporting characters who remain just as vital to the film and contribute to the film landing successfully throughout.
From the beginning, it engages with us and retains that, jumping from scenes involving Mathilde in her personal and professional life to the nuns in conversation with one another as events engulf the area. It displays a balanced view of characters where everyone gets a chance to take part in without leaving entirely to just one or two and all are just as necessary as the other. There is evidence too that when thinking back to this, as a piece of drama, it is one that might just be worth seeing twice, knowing what will happen but taking in again what makes this work.
There is an uncomfortable feel to this picture but this very adult drama succeeds in showing how superb European cinema can be and on the whole, it is one of the more impressive dramas of the year.