Director Anne Fontaine's new must-see film—and certain Oscar contender—reminds us that our fears of terror and oppression were our also our parents' ... and their parents' and their parents' and so on. When wannabe oligarchs preach isolation or fascism, the flames of hate are rekindled. So as I watched The Innocents (released as Les Innocentes when it debuted at Sundance earlier this year), I was struck at how relevant its theme was, in spite of it being based on a true story from 1945 Poland.
Do not be disinclined to see The Innocents. Granted, a Franco-Polish production of a Post WWII psychological drama may not be your idea of a date night, but I promise, you will not soon forget The Innocents. You may weep in sorrow early on, but by the end, you'll be crying tears of joy—in part, I'm happy to note, because of two magnificent female filmmakers behind the camera: Fontaine (the underappreciated Coco Before Chanel) and cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Cesar Award winner for 2011's Of Gods and Men).
The Innocents is based on the remembrances of Madeleine Pauliac, a young Red Cross doctor assigned to heal wounded Allied soldiers in previously Nazi-occupied Poland. When a nun arrives at the Red Cross hospital, begging Pauliac to come to a nearby convent, we learn of a rarely talked-about atrocity happening in Europe's post-war years. After suffering through years of Nazi oppression, Russian soldiers who had aligned with Allied forces "rewarded" themselves for their battlefield victories—some took their reward by raping nuns at Benedictine convents. In The Innocents, we see the aftermath of these horrific acts: many of the nuns refused medical help and resisted showing any skin, even to a female physician. Additionally, the abbess of the convent wanted any nuns' pregnancies kept quiet, due to the "shame and scandal," insisting only "God's help" would get them through.
"My duty is to protect their secret," says the Mother Abbess.
Faith is put to the test in The Innocents as questions of whether to cast it aside or embrace it even more are raised by the nuns' harrowing circumstances. As one pregnant sister tells the doubting physician, "My faith is 24 hours of doubt for one-minute of hope."
The performances in The Innocents are near-perfect, beginning with the luminous Lou de Laage as Pauliac, and Agata Buzek as the Mother Abbess, who faces the unbearable choice of risking disgrace by caring for the babies born, through no fault of their own, of tragedy; or the possibility of abandoning the infants.
I can't recommend The Innocents enough.
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Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, the film seems like a cross between an Indiana Jones movie and a Joseph Conrad novel—one where the world seems full of possibilities, rather than limitations.