The Innocents, set in the cold and snowy Polish landscapes, is the story of a young French doctor (Lou de Laâge) bound to secrecy when she decides to help a convent of nuns in the late stages of pregnancy. The film takes place in postwar Poland in 1945, a period of cross-cultural tension and reparation where no group is without their own feelings of guilt or suffering. The Innocents, featuring a cast of almost exclusively all women, is an uncommon wartime drama where the greatest conflicts are fought behind locked doors. It affirms a harsh truth of postwar healing that before things can get better they’re going to get a lot worse. In the fallout of Nazi Germany’s defeat the nuns of the film’s convent are raped (and impregnated) by Russian soldiers in a scenario which seems to represent the confusing state of affairs plaguing postwar Europe.
The Innocents is a disturbing but deeply empathetic portrait of women coming to grips with their place in the world, whilst trying to work with what fate has left them. The central characters are nuns and doctors but Anne Fontaine, director of the film, seems less interested in the demands enforced on them by their professions and instead on the roles they choose to play when confronted with matters of life and death. The film is clear on its opinion of organized religion. The nun’s toughest challenge in upholding faith to God is denying the essential qualities that make them human. Companionship, human contact and lust are not only denied from these women but acting on them results in punishment. But not even the fear of God can quell the choices of the human heart because when Nun Maria (Agata Buzek) chooses to seek medical help for her sisters, she does it knowing the threat it brings to both the reputation and safety of the convent.
The doctor of the film, Mathilde, is stationed at a French outpost when she decides to help the nuns in secrecy. It’s made quite clear that Mathilde doesn’t believe in God, a dissension that causes a natural rift between her and the convent’s Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), but that doesn’t stop the young doctor from forming a strong bond with the convent’s nuns. One of the few things that Fontaine captures in the precious moments between Mathilde and the nuns is a common decency between the women, beyond the clinical ethics of doctors and religious piety of nuns. Approached by the nun Mathilde initially ignores her pleas not wanting to abandon her post, but when she finds herself confronted with pure, unadulterated feeling, the young doctor chooses to put her livelihood on the line.
Laâge, who plays Mathilde, is a lucid portrait of ambiguity, in one of the film’s signature close-ups of the doctor’s face, she watches as Maria prays outside (shortly after Mathilde rejects the nun’s pleas for help) and for a few seconds we can see a sensitivity manifest beyond her hardened professionalism. Shots linger on faces in the film just long enough to capture the emotional toll of a scene, and on Laâge’s command, her eyes can tell a story in and of themselves. Another great performance comes from Agata Kulesza (who mastered the art of understated powerhouse in 2014’s Ida) who captures, with a low-key tragedy, the preservation of her character’s religious virtues but at the cost of basic human values.
Postwar dramas can never truly celebratory, nor should they be. Winning a war is the result of lives being lost, nations crumbling and cities destroyed. Europe, even after winning the war, is still a fragmented entity—allies in the film are divided into specific regions inside Poland, the French and the Soviets (despite being on the same side of an international conflict) are world’s apart. The only major male character in the film, an insecure Jewish doctor, isn’t shy in admitting his bitterness toward the Catholics and Christians. His years of prejudice don’t feel unearned because they’ve culminated in the mass extermination of his people (a fate his parents are implied to have shared).
The Innocents doesn’t celebrate victory because it understands that the communion of allied victory is a myth. But The Innocents doesn’t deal in defeat either. It’s a complex study of postwar cross-cultural communication which achieves greater truths by way of acknowledging uglier ones. Fontaine’s greatest achievement is her assured voice which is never too comforting nor too cynical. She approaches the material not as a historian spouting hard facts, but an artist devoting herself to the inhuman ugliness of the subject and finding something more hopeful, uncorrupted and undeniably human beneath the overwhelming rubble of victory and defeat.