Review by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
The Innocents (Anne Fontaine)
In post-WW II Poland a French Red Cross doctor is startled to find that several nuns in a local convent are pregnant, the result of rapes by the invading Soviet army, so she attempts to help them despite resistance from their stern Reverend Mother who insists that the surrounding community not find out about this scandal. The doctor persists, in a clash of beliefs.
What Happens: After opening graphics tell us this film is (yet another of so many current ones) based in actual events, we find ourselves in Poland, December 1945, where novice (a woman intending to become a nun but who has not yet taken her final vows) Teresa (Eliza Rycembel) sneaks out of her Benedictine convent to seek medical help for her colleagues, but when she arrives at the French Red Cross hospital she’s told that this facility is only for French soldiers so she’ll have to get aid from the Polish Red Cross. Instead, she kneels in the snow to pray outside the French compound where assistant doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) sees her, then takes it upon herself to drive this other young woman back to her convent where she finds Zofia (Anna Prochniak)—supposedly cast out by her family—in a very advanced state of pregnancy, desperately in need of medical help. Mathilde quickly determines this is a breech baby so she operates, successfully delivering the newborn (in shots seeming dramatically-lit by a single lamp, reminding me of the work of French painter Georges de la Tour, especially this one, The New-born [mid-1640s; other examples of his work can be accessed from this site's homepage]), then returns to her hospital the next day after being up all night, only to be ordered out of the operating room by her immediate surgical superior, Samuel Lehrmann (Vincent Macaigne), so she can get some sleep. However, back at the convent, Teresa also faces an order, to be confined to her cell (not in jail terms, just a small, sparsely-furnished room, appropriate for a vocation soon to be devoted to prayer and internal-community-service in this self-chosen-cloistered-life) for disobeying the Mother Superior’s (Agata Kulesza) rule about not seeking outside help for the sisters’ needs.
Mathilde comes back to check up on her mother and child patients, only to find that Zofia won’t even let her examine the belly-scar (as part of the nuns’ extreme understanding of their vow of chastity, that their uncovered-bodies are not to be seen or touched by anyone, including a female doctor—although she couldn’t do much to protest such on the previous night, given the agony she was in during the delivery process; at this point Mathilde comes to understand that Zofia is also a nun) and that the baby has been sent off to live with Zofia’s aunt; however, Mathilde then discovers another pregnant nun, so she wants to know what’s going on in this most-unorthodox convent.
Reluctantly, 2nd-in-command Sister Maria (Agata Buzek)—who speaks French so she interprets between doctor and nuns—explains that when Soviet soldiers pushed the Germans back in this area they also raped the sisters (most of whom had lived their lives as virgins, although Maria—the most honestly-pragmatic of all of these convent women—notes that she had been with men prior to becoming a nun), leaving 7 of these innocent Sisters pregnant (including her) but that no one must know about it because of the public humiliation it will bring upon them (unwarranted, in my view), as well as the probable closing of their convent by the disdainful Communists who now control this Polish community, both the Soviet occupiers and the newly-installed-Moscow-backed-government, although Maria and a couple of the other nuns agree that they’ll allow Mathilde to enter their shut-off-world to get them through the trauma of the remaining births (Maria admits that this crisis is severely testing her faith, in a situation where prayer is these women’s only solace, even though it’s not proving to be very effective at this point). Back at the hospital we learn that Mathilde and Samuel are occasional lovers with potential for a much stronger connection but with complexities as he’s Jewish from an upper-class-background, lost his family during the war, hates Poles, is anxious to leave, while she’s from working-class-Communists, doubts that God even exists let alone can provide anyone with any relief from these atrocities (although she equally has no respect for the local Polish honchos nor the Russian soldiers, who stop her on the road back from the convent one night, attempting to rape her until stopped by their commander; however, he tells her she can’t continue through this sector that night so she’s forced to return to the convent where the next day these goons barge in again, supposedly looking for anti-government-rebels, only to leave quickly when Mathilde lies by saying that many of the nuns are suffering from typhoid).
The situation just continues to deteriorate as Mathilde’s French commander (Pascal Elso) forbids her from further venturing outside of their sector to give aid to these Polish nuns (so she continues to travel there by bicycle at night); the stern Reverend Mother begrudgingly allows Mathilde to help the pregnant sisters but insists both that no one else learns about their situation and that she be informed of each of the upcoming births so that she can find homes for the babies with the Sisters’ relatives (she also refuses treatment for the syphilis she’s contracted, implying that suffering is part of her leadership role); Maria can’t shake the horrid memories of the rapes, admitting the inherent cruelty of life (“Behind all joy lies the cross.”); while Mathilde grapples with her internal conflict that she rejects the faith the nuns so cling to (even to the point of being resistive to their medical needs because of that “chastity” problem, but as Maria tells her in trying to justify the nuns’ collective goal: “Faith is 24 hours of doubt, 1 minute of hope.”) while realizing (as Samuel notes to her) she has her own “faith,” in a “brighter tomorrow” from her Communist ideology. Other births begin to arrive, with the stark contrast between Sister Ludwika (Helena Sujecka) who’s so appalled by the experience that she just lets her baby drop to the floor by her bed (so her child’s given to Zofia for nursing) and novice Irena who’s happy to have Mathilde move her baby while it’s still in the womb. It’s at this point that we see the Rev. Mother take the newborn from Zofia into the woods (eluding Zofia who tried to follow her), but not to pass on to a family member instead to leave it by a cross on a snowy path (surely to die, short of some miraculous discovery by passersby), from which we come to understand that this is what she’s done with previous babies to prevent anyone from knowing about the pregnancies (verified for the other nuns when Mathilde, in sorrow over Zofia’s sudden suicide, tries to take some baby garments to Zofia’s aunt [Joanna Fertacz], only to learn that this relative knew nothing about her niece’s child).
Under accusation from Maria, the Mother Abbess confesses her sin, saying she chose self-damnation in order to try to save the reputations—if not the lives—of the other nuns from the displeasure of their quick-to-judge-neighbors and officials, which then encourages Mathilde to bring the remaining babies to her hospital until another solution can be found. Such a tactic needs to be quick, though, because the hospital unit’s about to be shut down, with Mathilde scheduled to go back to France while Samuel’s destined for the French sector of Allied-occupied-Berlin, but fast-thinking on Mathilde’s part leads to rounding up the orphans who hang around the hospital, bringing them along with the babies to the convent for the nuns to care for as service to the community, and local acceptance of this ruse as explanation for any of the babies to be found at the convent (allowing their mothers to raise them with no questions asked about where they came from), even as Mother Superior spends her final days in grim, disease-ridden, self-imposed-isolation in personal penance for the infant deaths she was responsible for. Our story ends 3 months later with Mathilde getting a postcard from Maria with a photo on the back of smiling nuns posing with the now-secure-children while a final scene at the convent verifies that all is well after the previously-grim-period of unending-agony.
So What? In my last posting (July 7, 2016), in making reference to Our Kind of Traitor I noted that among the easy clues that a film has had a difficult time getting its financing and/or is facing further trouble finding an audience are when you see that there are several production companies listed in the opening credits and when you find virtually nothing in the Wikipedia entry except scant details along with a cast list; further, these factors also can be indicators of something that likely won’t draw very much of an appreciative-audience so it can be a gamble whether you want to invest your hard-earned-cash (unless you’re that mystery person who recently won $540 million in the Mega Millions lottery). Well, based on these “you’d better think twice”-criteria, The Innocents might also seem like a chance-choice, with a not-very-informative Wikipedia page and 5 production companies involved, but your interest could well be buoyed sufficiently by strong critical response (88% positive reviews found in Rotten Tomatoes, 77 % in Metacritic; more details in the Related Links section below [… Traitor didn’t have that going for it, with averages in each critics’ collective 20 points lower than with The Innocents, although I still found it entertaining enough as a lazy-Saturday-afternoon-divergence]), which was the ultimate factor in my decision to see this French-Polish-Belgian-co-production (with additional support from the Polish Film Institute and Film Commission Poland), a very fortunate choice because—along with Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2014; my #3 of that year’s films [review in our June 3, 2014 posting], winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film [the 1st Polish film to do so])—this is another marvelous example of why stories of the aftermath of WW II throughout Eastern Europe need to be seen and understood just as much as those, such as the gut-wrenching Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), that emphatically-recount the horrors that occurred during that grotesque-in-all-aspects-war.
The Innocents even has a direct connection to Ida (making for the option of a somber-but-powerful-home-video-double-feature, unless you’re one of the lucky few who lives in a city where there are still a few repertory movie theatres that show such combinations in their eclectic programming), as both of these intense films focus on characters who are either in or about to declare their lives in a convent, with marvelous actress Kulesza featured in both, as the damaged-by-life-aunt of Ida in the earlier film (who suddenly learns of her previously-unknown-Jewish-heritage from this relative just as she's about to make the transition from novice to nun) and as the guilt-ridden-Mother Superior in our current story, who would likely be one of the Catholics that Ida’s Aunt Wanda despises because of the general lack of support from that large segment of the Polish populace to help the enormous number of Jews tortured or killed by the Nazis during the War (although others did give life-saving-aid, very recently honored by the Jewish Foundation of the Righteous in Poland [founded in 1986] which makes annual support contributions to these Christian allies of that time [most are now quite old] to supplement their meager state pensions and medical services). Still, Rev. Mother was clearly torn as to how she should respond to the potential-scandal of her pregnant nuns in a hostile society where they were caught between the very-old-school-mentality of fellow Catholics who’d condemn these specific women (and, by association, their entire convent) for being defiled (just as women today in the Middle East, India, etc. are still ostracized, if not outright killed, by their own families after they’re raped, with the perpetrators rarely getting any sort of punishment)—an attitude so ingrained in some of these nuns that they also either considered themselves unclean for having been violated or continued to see their vow of chastity so rigidly as to not even allow Mathilde to touch them—as well as further harassment from both the occupying Soviets and their newly-vested-Polish-comrades who apparently had little respect for either women or religious institutions. The Mother Abbess felt she had to dispose of these unwanted babies in order to hide the reality of what had occurred because of the “liberators,” even though she’s then roundly condemned for it.
According to director Fontaine, the character of Mathilde Beaulieu was inspired by Red Cross doctor Madeleine Pauliac (a staff doctor at a Paris hospital who joined the French Resistance at age 27; was appointed in April 1945 as the Chief Doctor of French Hospital in Warsaw charged with finding, treating, and repatriating French soldiers remaining in Poland; accidently died in 1946) whose notes on her post-War service say that the situation at this bleak convent was even more atrocious than what we learn about in the film: 25 nuns there were raped by Soviet soldiers, some enduring this degradation 40 times in a row, leaving 20 of them dead, 5 with pregnancies (Pauliac reports that the rapists acted under authority of their superiors, granting them rewards for their military service). As is so often the case with these ‘based on true events” films, the essence of the situation is accurate (regarding the rapes and pregnancies of the nuns) but the details about the doctor who discovers their plight seem to be largely fictionalized in order to give narrative structure—as well as closure, in this case, with the emphasis on the temporal (can’t say about the spiritual) salvation of the variously-abandoned-children in this area of post-War-Poland rather than on whatever might become of Mathilde and Samuel—and personalized embodiments of this tragic situation rather than veering too clinically-far into documentary-like-accounts of this sinful situation (concerning the Russian soldiers, not the nuns, despite their tortured-self-understandings about being violated, giving birth, or even allowing their bodies to be seen without the covering of their bulky habits). This works effectively for me because even if the actual Pauliac wasn’t struggling with Christianity vs. Communism or committing to a romantic relationship with a medical colleague, even if there was no Mother Superior who decided that sacrificing babies was for the greater good of protecting all of her fellow nuns in this seemingly-Godforsaken-place, the conceptual conflicts that this story raises in the midst of the almost-unknown-events of the Soviet rapes makes for an intimate story of personal choices that nicely balances the larger account of atrocities (sadly repeated throughout eons of wartime).
Final Comments: The visual environment of The Innocents is as starkly-dreary as its content, with snow-filled-outdoor-scenes nicely replicating the soul-chilling-activities that populate the plot, with this all-encompassing-sterilely-achromatic-white barely contrasted by any sense of warmth to the monochromatically-grayish-brown-tonality of the convent’s interior where the occasional use of penetratingly-bright-lamplight illuminates the pain of the pregnant nuns as they struggle against their own bodies toward a result they had previously renounced with their all-commanding-vows, leaving most of them with no joy whatsoever in the aftermath of childbirth to balance out the physical duress of bringing new life into the world—although the café scenes with Mathilde and Samuel do have an aura of life-giving-warmth to them, physically from their yellow-skewed-incandescent-light-sources as well as emotionally from the little human attraction that’s allowed to find substance in this frigid setting (at least until the solution is found by Mathilde and Maria that allows the remaining nun-mothers to quietly raise their children). The convent itself is also a study in bleakness (purposely so, as the vows of chastity and obedience go hand-in-hand with the vow of poverty [someone before current Pope Francis might have noted that to the Vatican hierarchy and its worldwide corps of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops ages ago, challenging them to renounce their opulence in favor of spreading that vast material wealth around with their millions of poverty-stricken-parishioners]) so it’s appropriate that this cold, stone dwelling should also seem as rigid (yet unbreakable) as the demeanor of its group leader (even though this specific convent, according to Fontaine, had to be built within the framework of an existing, abandoned one where only the cemetery and archways of a structure remained because actual Polish convents weren’t open to the idea of this film being shot within their walls). Purposely, the final scenes there take place in the warmer months where life—symbolized by the children in their new home—becomes an active process rather than such a withdrawn, meditative one.
As you can tell from my previous comments, I’m quite taken by this subtly-but-consistently-strong-film, which has been also largely embraced at large by the cinematic-critical-community, although in scanning over the many comments in the Rotten Tomatoes tally I was struck by a statement in one of the few negative stances—from J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader—which contains the opinion that The Innocents “begins to bog down, though, as spiritual concerns take over the narrative … it takes a secular and faintly condescending view of the nuns, portrayed as innocent victims of shame and misguided religiosity”; Fontaine, in the press notes, doesn’t directly address Jones’ comments but she does offer a clear counter-opinion to his charges: “I wanted to get as close as possible to what would have been happening within these women, to depict the indescribable. Spirituality had to be at the heart of the film.” Further, in order to better understand her subjects, Fontaine went on 2 retreats in Benedictine communities, functioning as a novice for a while during her 2nd immersion in this life because “I wanted to convey the singular, meditative passage of time in a convent while maintaining the dramatic tension: It was a delicate balance to find both while writing the screenplay and during the film shoot. I also replicated what I saw during my retreats. I thought it was important to know that the sisters grant themselves peaceful moments when everyone can pursue their own interests: reading, music, sewing, conversation...” (rather than just being [presumably] focused every minute on saving their souls—except for the Rev. Mother, willing to sacrifice hers for what she understood to be the needed good of her companions). From a spiritual standpoint, I’ve moved away from my own earlier Catholicism to a position more like Mathilde’s Oversoul-skepticism, but, like her, willing to support whatever makes for a better human experience for as many as possible. Ultimately, she and Sister Maria end up on the same wavelength where those redemptive-desires are concerned.
When I first began to contemplate the content of this review, I originally intended to note somewhere far closer to the beginning that I’ve haven’t seen so many nuns be given this much screen time since the days when Whoopi Goldberg was in her Sister Act movies (Emile Ardolino, 1992; Bill Duke, 1993 ), but I just couldn’t find a place to make such a flippant remark when writing about the deadly-serious situations and ideas emphasized in The Innocents. Nor could I come easily to a Musical Metaphor that speaks from the viewpoint of another art form about what I’ve encountered in this sobering, ultimately uplifting film; finally I decided that The Eagles’ Don Henley had what I needed in “The End of the Innocence” (despite the slight pun between the 2 titles) from his 1989 album of the same name, with this music video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYl1NIgrADg (the 1989 original, directed by David Fincher, won the 1990 MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video [using imagery that at times reminds me of the photography of the great chronicler of various American experiences, Robert Frank; if you like, you can get a marvelous sampling of Frank's work here because I can no longer find access to the intended Henley video for you due to copyright problems]). If you’re not that familiar with the lyrics to this song you'll find them here, where you can piece together from what’s sung and shown that “the innocence” being referred to in the song is Henley’s bittersweet thoughts about how the JFK Camelot years of the early 1960s go through a decline that runs from the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy to the embrace of GOP-icon President Reagan in the 1980s (I got that cynical about the direction of this country much earlier, with the resounding defeat of the George McGovern Democratic platform in 1972 by my candidate for Worst Enemy of the State from Within the State, President Nixon, followed by a similar landslide in 1980 against well-meaning-President Carter that swept confident Reagan’s “Morning in America” [I’d say an earlier version of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan] era into office).
However, I still see relevance in these words to what we must struggle to watch calmly in The Innocents when Henley sings his lyrics of “But ‘happily ever after’ fails And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales … But I know a place where we can go That’s still untouched by men We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by And the tall grass wave in the wind … Offer up your best defense But this is the end This is the end of the innocence … Armchair warriors often fail … The lawyers clean up all details Since daddy had to lie But I know a place where we can go And wash away this sin … But this is the end This is the end of the innocence.” No matter how blissful the convent community appears at the conclusion of this story, in harmony with their surrounding laity neighbors, smiling with the laughter of the children running around their property, the innocence that these women hoped to find by giving themselves over to their religious order has forever been dashed, even if Sister Maria has found a means of restoring her faith in the process (as her brief note on the postcard to Mathilde indicates), the dark reality that brought them to the verge of Hell still remains in the hidden presence of their constantly-remorseful Mother Superior, whose suffering reminds us again that “Behind all joy lies the cross”—even if that symbol of ultimate-suffering isn’t something we personally adhere to—the concept that our childhood innocence will ultimately be undone by the vicious reality that comprises (and compromises) life is a universal one that this film makes us all too aware of, especially in these horrible current days of American trauma where our hope for civilized order embodied in the institution of police officers finds these intended-peacekeepers (just as the Soviet soldiers as part of the anti-Nazi Allied armies were supposed to be peace-bringers in WW II) as both murderous villains and murdered victims of reprisal, with deaths further eroding the commonality we keep trying to claim as a defining national characteristic. May we still find our “best defense” somewhere, somehow even as our innocence has been eroded.
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
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