LAFF The Innocents a Review
10 Jun 2016
Heroes don’t always wear capes, sometimes she wears a military uniform and works for the red cross. The Innocents is a film based on actual events of Polish nuns at a convent in Post WWII and a young French doctor who risks her everything to save them in their time of crisis.
The film opens up in Poland, December 1945. Mathilde, brilliantly played by Lou de Laâge, is assisting the head surgeon in a surgery at the Red Cross where every health care worker is busy patching up soldiers wounded in the war. When a young nun demands Mathilde’s assistance, she accompanies her back to the convent. Mathilde sees perhaps what was one of the last things she expected to witness; a young nun is in labor. With the most rudimentary of equipment and instruments, Mathilde performs an emergency C-section to deliver the breeched birth infant. The Reverend Mother feeds Mathilde a well fabricated story about the nun and her pregnancy. When Mathilde returns the next day to check up on the mother and newborn, she discovers that a total of 6 more nuns are near their due date.
The director, Ann Fontaine and cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, have done an excellent job at creating a world where we feel the weight of the aftermath of the second world war. The backdrop of every scene is morbid and the characters at the abbey are pious, but very melancholy. The sadness is ubiquitous and commands our curiosity. When Mathilde learns the truth about the nuns being raped over and over by the Russian soldiers during the few days that they occupied the convent, we feel the weight of this news with her. We feel the validity of her questions. How can these nuns remain faithful after the victimization they suffered nearly nine months ago and everything they are still dealing with in the aftermath? There is no solace from the outside world neither within the confines of the convent. Being victimized in the house of the lord means there is no place to run. The shame forces them to harbor their secrets. Even when it means risking the lives of the nuns in a labor riddled with complications over seeking medical help.
The fear, confusion and doubt make pregnant nuns real for us. Maria, one of the nuns raped in the attacks explains to Mathilde that she is conflicted about what God wants from her after she gave her life to him and was then brutally raped in the convent. It is through Maria that we get to see the before picture of what life was like before the convent for some of these women. She was certainly of the world and her sensibilities after converting give her an edge over many of the other nuns who were virgins before the attack. In this convent where the bedrooms are referred to as cells, Maria is a comfortable medium between the iron fist of the Reverend Mother who is content with doing unspeakable things to keep up the appearance of perfect piety and Mathilde who’s lack of faith provides a stark contrast to the residents of the convent.
These characters are a microcosm of many countries around the world post WWII. They were brutally victimized by the savagery of the war, struggling day by day to reconstruct their lives out of the ashes while dealing with inner turmoil and confusion. The Innocents is one of the few films I’ve seen where I wasn’t irritated that it was an outsider who came in and saved the day. I was impressed my Mathilde’s poise and humility. There were moments where she challenged the women to put God to the side and behave more logically, but she never belittled their intelligence or made them feel apologetic for maintaining their faith even after all that they had suffered within the house of God.
The Innocents flows with a slow hand and an easy touch. We get to experience both the expansive landscapes in the exterior shots and the very tight spaces the nuns are confined to in the interiors. I experienced the breaths of fresh air enjoyed by the characters and the claustrophobia inducing moments throughout the film. These visual disparities helped facilitate the wide range of emotions I experienced from beginning to end.
This is a film about fear. This is a film about anger. This is a film about fear. This is a film about despair, hopelessness, and all the fucked up illogical shit that women around the world have suffered at the hands of men from the beginning of time. The story of these nuns is universal. They are the women victimized by the rebel soldiers and the rebel fighters in the Congo. They are the college girls marred by campus date rapes. They are the women who stand against Bill Cosby and are called liars for not reporting the crime against them in a timelier fashion. These nuns who carried and delivered babies planted in their wombs by the enemy are the enslaved African women who birthed mulatto babies with their slave master’s features. The Innocents takes place in 1945 Warsaw Poland, yet it is the past, present and future of the women on this planet. I would give up texting for a whole week to sit at the table with this powerful group of female filmmakers as they discuss the message of this film. This film is a definite must see for anyone interested in women and their place in religion as well as the constraints they wear within the patrachial constructs. The next time I see this film it will be with my young adult children and I don’t give a damn about how they feel about subtitles!