The Innocents opens in a Benedictine convent in Poland in 1945, shortly after the event known, not without bitter irony, as the liberation of Poland by the Soviet army. As the nuns lift their voices in song, giving praise to God, a voice is heard making a rather different sound. In response, a young novice slips out of the convent and sets off across the snowy countryside, seeking help of a specific sort.
She returns with a young French Red Cross doctor named Mathilde, who has been chosen because she is neither Polish nor Russian. It is not the first time the boundary between this convent and the world has been transgressed, and it was an earlier violation that makes the present trespass necessary.
If the young novice has broken the rules of her religious community, Mathilde does the same regarding her own medical community, which she abandons without permission, depriving them of a vehicle as well as her own services, which even on her return she is too exhausted to render. What sorts of transgressions are morally legitimate, and what sorts are not, is one of The Innocents’ thematic preoccupations.
The Innocents debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival under the title Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), but apparently its French title was always Les Innocentes — a less overtly religious but more expressive title, applying to more than one set of people, and to more than one kind of innocence. Inspired by actual events, it is a wrenching drama about the human cost of what is often called man’s inhumanity to man, though it is often women and children who suffer most, as here.
It is also about making sense of suffering and how it relates to God, faith and doubt, a familiar theme explored in many films, if almost always, as my friend and peer Jeffrey Overstreet points out, from a male perspective. Here is one that is not only dominated by female characters, but directed by a woman, Anne Fontaine, and filmed by another, Caroline Champetier. (The writing credits are complicated, but the two credited screenwriters are also women.)
With its Polish setting, post-World War II backdrop and muted palette at times approximating black and white, The Innocents evokes the luminous 2013 film Ida, with which it shares a number of actresses, notably Agata Kulesza, who played the disillusioned judge in Ida and plays the mother abbess here. Both films explore the frontier between cloistered and worldly life in relationships between devout and unbelieving women.
With several habited characters rather than just one, The Innocents is less schematic than Ida, but formal contrasts emerge: Where Ida featured a devout, naive young novice and Kulesza as a worldly Communist Party member, in The Innocents the secular woman, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), is a young, idealistic Communist (though she makes a point of saying she’s not a party member), with Kulesza on the other side of the sacred-secular divide, if with possibly more in common with her role in Ida than appears.
The extermination of Poland’s Jews, and the complicity of the Polish people, is a theme in both films. Mathilde works with (and occasionally sleeps with) a Jewish doctor (Vincent Macaigne) who obliquely expresses his contempt for the Polish people: “They got what they deserved. The only Polish people I cared about were in the Warsaw ghetto. They’re all gone.”
In Ida, the characters’ spiritual struggles were entirely interiorized; here they’re discussed openly. “I can no longer reconcile my faith with these terrible events,” one sister confesses to another. “God, of whom I still consider myself the divine bride, nonetheless wanted this. … If it happened, that means he wanted it.”
The reply from the other is reassuring: “We cannot know what God wants” to happen, she says; “the only truth is his love.” Yet the specific circumstances in question are of a sort that tends to evoke God’s will with particular insistence. Later a character rationalizes a terrible crime by appealing to Providence, though the crime in question is precisely of a sort accepted among the pagan Romans but condemned by the early Christians.
The Innocents explores both the divide and the commonality between Mathilde and the nuns. On the one hand, Mathilde is put off by the crippling sense of shame hanging over the convent. One sister’s scruples are so severe that she recoils in fear of hell over the immodesty of allowing even a woman doctor to examine her body. Another, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), has a more practical outlook and works hard to bridge the gap between the doctor and the sisters. (Unlike most of the others, Maria didn’t enter the convent as a virgin; still, she embraces religious life despite her worldly past.)
On the other hand, the divide between Mathilde and the nuns is minimized in a terrible sequence in which the doctor is turned back at a Soviet checkpoint after being terrifyingly assaulted by laughing troops, and winds up the night at the convent. To the eyes of brutal men, all female bodies are objects of momentary male desire and pleasure, and for at least one night the convent walls offer sanctuary even to the atheist doctor.
The most intriguing exchanges are between Mathilde and Sister Maria. When Mathilde asks if any of the sisters have lost faith, Maria tries to explain how the simple faith of childhood never lasts, and must always become something else: “At first you're like a child holding your father's hand,” she says. “Then a time comes — and I think it always comes — when your father lets go.” In one of the film’s most quotable lines, Maria describes faith as “24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope.”
It is fair to say that The Innocents is more comfortable with Mathilde’s secularism than with even the balanced piety of Sister Maria. The nuns’ way is ruthlessly cross-examined, but Mathilde isn’t cross-examinated at all, even if she glancingly admits to something missing in her life that she can’t put into words.
Still, the nuns’ way is respected and even ultimately affirmed. The sisters have lost a kind of innocence, but made room for another, and the dominant note in the end is hopeful and life-affirming.
Caveat Spectator: The Innocents contains mature, deeply disturbing thematic content, notably a central premise openly discussed in many reviews, though not mine. There is little explicit onscreen content of the sort normally noted in content advisories, but a complete catalogue of thematic material would reveal too much of what should be discovered watching the film. Mature viewing.