Like alabaster snow on ebony branches, and the habits of the nuns themselves, The Innocents is a film of contrasts, contradictions and complexities. The chilling narration, directed by Anne Fontaine as part of a French-Polish creative alliance, is based on the true events that shortly followed the Second World War. The rape of nuns, who hide their advanced pregnancies beneath their robes of chastity, becomes a turbulent and moving catalyst of perplexing irony and paradox.
Daring to risk shame at the discovery of the abbey’s secret, and in order to save lives, one of the Polish nuns seeks the help of French medical student Mathilde Beaulieu (played by a steely Lou de Laâge). Mathilde, who works for the French Red Cross, is a communist and an atheist. Her life and loves contrast greatly with those of the nuns, but one of the great virtues of the script is the writers’ ability to harmoniously intertwine differing perspectives in a way that portrays a gentler, warmer side of humanity in the face of tragedy.
As we watch Mathilde secretly deliver each child conceived through crime and terror, we witness the nuns’ attempt to reconcile their spiritual beliefs with their physical experiences – such as feelings of repulsion at motherly love and sensations of misplaced guilt with their pledge of innocence, as the audience is beckoned into the labyrinth of the human conscience. The world of the innocent victims is turned on its head. The melodious swell of voices singing morning praises is pierced with agonised screams, and the death of children haunts the secluded Polish abbey – the safety and sanctuary of its stone walls reduced to the fragility of a paper fortress.
In his moving adaptation, writer Pascal Bonitzer manages to evade monotony and repetitiveness by interweaving several storylines and archetypes into a single narrative. We witness the moral corruption of the religious, as personified by a murderous Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), the heartbroken new mother who takes her own life at the loss of her newly-named child, and the liberal non-conformist, a young individual who trades her role as a nun and a mother in order to forge her identity as a woman.
Beautifully shot, the raw themes of the film are handled with surprising delicately, with fewer scenes depicting the graphic nature of childbirth and suicide than there are shots of contemplative profiles, silhouetted by serpentines of cigarette smoke, staring out of windows or into vodka glasses.
A haunting exposé of faith, humanity, motherhood and the roles of women, The Innocents glitters with beauty and pain. Its only weakness, perhaps, lies in its conclusion, where a lack of nuance and layering between extreme pathos and a ‘happy ending’ makes the finale seem somewhat stilted and abrupt, as the cold, eerie atmosphere melts into sunlight and tea parties in an overly saccharine fashion.
I mentioned earlier that The Innocents appeared to be about contradictions and contrast, yet as the film progresses, we come to realise it is a story about unity, regardless of faith, creed, or circumstance: unity through suffering, human compassion, and love
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