Anne Fontaine’s dark and disturbing 2016 film “Les Innocents” tells a tragic and painful tale based on real events.
The film takes place in December 1945. The young French medical student Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is serving in Poland with the Red Cross giving medical care to survivors of the war that has recently ended.
One day a deeply troubled young Polish sister stumbles into the Red Cross clinic from a nearby convent pleading for help. Mathilde brushes her off, encouraging her to go to the Polish or Russian authorities with her need. Later Mathilde looks outside and sees the sister kneeling and praying in the snow.
Mathilde has a change of heart and accompanies the sister to the convent where she discovers a young woman about to give birth. Eventually, Mathilde becomes involved in the lives of the other sisters and discovers that seven of them are pregnant having been repeatedly raped by Red Army soldiers.
“Les Innocents” is certainly a film about the horrors of war. It is also a film about the desperate vulnerability of women.
The convent is trapped in a world of secrecy, violence, and male dominance.
But, perhaps most profoundly, “Les Innocents” is a movie about different worldviews.
Mathilde comes from a modern sophisticated world of unbelief. She operates in the realm of international social political theory, higher education, and liberated relations between men and women. It is a world in which commitments are loosely formed and relationships of convenience are picked up for as long as they serve a useful purpose.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, given the era, for all its sophistication, education, and freedom, Mathilde still inhabits a world in which women remain the victims of male power and abuse.
The nuns live in a stark, bare pre-scientific Medieval world of faith that exists on the edge of superstition. It is a rigid, dogmatic, hierarchical world of obedience to absolute authority. There is no room for questions and no space to challenge the dictates handed down by the fearsome unyielding Abbess (Agata Kulesza). It is a world where commitments are forged for life and from which there is almost no escape.
But the convent cannot avoid the realities of the outside world. So the invasion of the Russians has plunged the sisters into a crisis of faith.
Sister Maria articulates the challenge of faith saying,
At first you’re like a child holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes — and I think it always comes — when your father lets go. You’re lost, alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers. Even if you prepare for it, you’re caught unawares. It hits you right in the heart.
In the midst of this dilemma and the deep crisis Soviet brutality has brought into their lives, Sister Maria makes a halting statement of enduring faith declaring,
Faith is 24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope.
This may be the most that can honestly be said in the face of the atrocities of war and the agony of abuse suffered by so many innocent victims. For Sister Maria that “one minute of hope” is perhaps enough to keep her faithful to the vows she has made and in the end, her faith seems to bring light into the darkest imaginable world.
It is not clear at the end of the film, that Mathilde has found her way to a similar place of light and hope.