Pregnant nuns, and no; it’s not a comedy. My review of The Innocents

B+ Religious drama

Written by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine

Directed by Anne Fontaine

Religion at its worst–stern, rule-based, shameful, and dictatorial–comes up against basic human values in this drama about a nunnery experiencing a rash of new-born babies.

Yes, that description suggests a Monty Python-like farce, not a serious drama. In the case of The Innocents, it brings layers of tragedy as well as much-needed redemption.

The setting is rural Poland, December, 1945. The horrors of Nazi occupation had been replaced by the horrors of Communist occupation the previous spring. When Russian soldiers overran the area, they broke into the convent and raped the nuns. Now many of them are pregnant.

People often stigmatize rape victims in today’s most liberal societies; imagine what it would have been like 70 years ago for Polish nuns. They’re desperately afraid of letting anyone outside of the convent know about the situation. Even within the convent the subject is tricky. Bringing to a Polish or Russian doctor would be unthinkable.

The extremely strict mother superior doesn’t help. She keeps her charges on a very short leash, and wants to smother certain topics of conversation. As the film progresses, we discover just how horrifying–and how horrified–she is.

Luckily, there’s a French Red Cross hospital nearby. It’s there only to take care of wounded French soldiers. A rebellious nun sneaks out of the convent, finds the hospital, and begs help from a young woman doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). Hiding her altruistic act from her superiors, Mathilde visits the convent as often as possible, while hiding what she’s doing and maintaining her duties. (Were there really French soldiers and French doctors in 1945 Russian-occupied Poland ? Seems unlikely to me. But this is a French film, so it needed a French heroine.)

Brought up in a French Communist household, Mathilde doesn’t believe in God (whether she still believes in Communism isn’t clear). But basic kindness is in her nature, and she clearly represents a secular humanism that’s light years away from the mother superior’s strict rules.

The Innocents doesn’t suggest that religion is inherently evil. Most of the nuns are decent, loving human beings who try to find inspiration from their condition despite the mother superior.

Mathilde enjoys a romance (more of a fling, really) with one of the French Red Cross doctors, and she eventually brings him to the nunnery to help. He’s a Jew who got out of France just in time; his parents died in the Holocaust. When he arrives at the nunnery, I thought the mother superior would object to the presence of a man. But she seemed far more upset about the presence of a Jew.

The Innocents is beautifully shot by Caroline Champetier, giving us a sense of extreme austerity–not only the willful austerity of the nuns, but also of the peasants who have been put through war and occupation.

Mild spoiler below

The film’s happy ending felt forced to me. A revelation (not the magical kind) and a good idea solve everything. Then an epilogue, set three months later, makes it clear just how happy everyone is now.

That ending is a significant flaw, but not enough of one to keep me from recommending The Innocents.

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