A nurse, working with the French Red Cross, travels to Poland in the year 1945, her mission being to provide assistance to the many wounded survivors of the war. Once there, however, she finds herself whisked away to a convent by a particularly pushy sister; at the convent she discovers, much to her surprise, that several of the nuns are pregnant. The sisterhood at first attempts to cover this fact up, but as you can imagine they don’t succeed for very long, and in the end the full, horrifying story comes out, which is that the nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers as they passed through. Despite the rigid uniformity of their faith, the sisters are written as a diverse set of personalities who respond to their situation in diverse ways. One character who, unfortunately, isn’t written with as much depth as the others is the Mother Superior, a cardboard cut-out of a villain of the type who is usually seen trying to close down youth centres in sports movies. Mother Superior tells the sisters she is putting the babies up for adoption when, in fact, she is abandoning them in the frozen woods in a series of haunting shots, her black robes moving across the white ground. Mother Superior considers this not to be manslaughter but rather to be leaving the children “to Providence”. Our brave nurse, however, discovers what Mother Superior has been up to, exposes her actions to the rest of the convent, and saves the day.
In between, there is much weighty discussion about the human impact of war, the psychology of rape, the effect of sexuality, or lack thereof, on the female consciousness, and the elusive, contradictory nature of faith. There is even a subplot examining the culpability of the Polish for the Holocaust through the character of Samuel, a fellow Red Cross worker and Jew who lost his entire family and is therefore reluctant to offer his aid. Of course, a sort of uneasy understanding between Samuel and the nuns is reached, each party learning something from the other. From beginning to end, The Innocents is the sort of film in which people learn from other people. Too slow and with too upsetting a theme to properly be called “feel-good”, neither is the film ever really difficult or challenging. It operates with an earnest worthiness and an ultimate sentimentality that is comparable to Spielberg’s historical dramas, such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, or Saving Private Ryan. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but the easy answers and happy ending of The Innocents make it a considerably slighter experience than one might go in expecting, having read its synopsis. Director Anne Fontaine has been working in cinema since the 1990s, but has seen more success outside of France only recently with gentle comedies such as Coco Before Chanel, Adoration, and Gemma Bovery. On a long CV, few of the entries are not comedic in one way or another, and one can’t help but feel that the script for The Innocents could have benefited from being realised by a director with a more unflinchingly cruel vision. Nevertheless, what is here is a worthwhile commitment for those willing to engage with it.
The Innocents will be released in UK cinemas from tomorrow, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!