Anne Fontaine’s film The Innocents is a thought provoking, often disturbing film. Although it is inspired by real events, some parts of the narrative are fictitious. The film takes place in December 1945, but the issues it raises about belief and devotion to duty will resonate with people of faith today.
In the opening scenes, a nun convinces Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) that someone at the convent needs immediate medical assistance. Mathilde is stunned to find one nun in labor and several more pregnant, the result of assaults by Russian soldiers. The Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza, Ida), fearing her order will be dismantled, forbids any doctors but Mathilde and insists on complete secrecy.
Mathilde, who is a non-believer, finds herself frustrated at the restrictions placed on her by the Reverend Mother. At the same time, she becomes increasingly protective of the women under her care. Mathilde is powerless to treat the women’s sharp feelings of betrayal by the God whom they believed would watch over them. Moving forward from those feelings takes place a little differently for each woman affected.
The writing credits for The Innocents are a real labyrinth. Phillipe Maynial developed the original story, but Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial are credited with the screenplay. Beyond that, Fontaine and Ascal Bonitzer receive credit for “adaptation”.
However you want to parcel out the writing credits, this is very much Fontaine’s project. She learned about Madeleine Pauliac, Chief Doctor of the Warsaw French Hospital during World War II, and decided to make a film about her wartime experiences.
Fontaine felt drawn to this story because it was about motherhood and faith. To prepare for making the film, she went on retreats to get an idea of convent life. Fontaine had a special interest in the communal life of nuns, their need to constantly supervise their time, and their methods of dealing with crises of faith.
Even so, there are melodramatic moments in the telling of this story. The most grating is an incident that occurs at the film’s midpoint. I was not able to confirm the incident actually happened, so I am forced to conclude the writers thought it provided character development for Mathilde. The film quickly regains its footing, however.
De Laâge is terrific as Mathilde. You appreciate the conflicts of this woman, coerced into a difficult situation and growing in spite of herself. It is a beautifully nuanced performance. There is also good work by Kulesza and Agata Buzek (as Maria, a nun who becomes a confidante of sorts to Mathilde). Maria has the line that may come to be associated with this film: “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope.”
Theme: Faith Challenged
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