The Innocents – Film Review by Fran Winston
Directed by: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Lou de Laâge, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Vincent Macaigne
In cinemas November 18th
Part of the French Film Festival at the IFI
Over 70 years after the end of World War II, you’d think that every atrocity of that era had already been laid bare. But it seems not as this French, Polish and Belgian co-production presents us with a little known story of savagery that was suffered by a group of nuns in a Polish convent at the hands of Russian soldiers.
Set in December 1945 it follows a young French Red Cross medic Mathilde (Laâge) who is accosted by a Polish nun looking for help. When she arrives at her convent she finds a young woman undergoing a difficult labour and she is forced to operate. She subsequently learns that several of the nuns in the convent are in a similar condition after being raped by Russian Soldiers. Using bilingual nun Sister Maria (Buzek) to communicate with the women she soon discovers that their faith is causing them huge conflicts given their conditions. With many of them suffering PTSD and the Mother Superior (Kulesza) opposed to Mathilde’s intervention she and Sister Maria must try and help them come to terms with what has happened to them.
This is a fairly traumatic watch at times thanks to some amazing performances. This is a predominately female cast (which is wonderful to see) and each one is a powerhouse completely embodying their characters and you really feel their conflict. Laâge and Buzek have some amazing scenes together and the script is top notch – even allowing for some of the nuances getting lost in the subtitled translation as usually happens.
With most of the scenes set in the convent this is extremely claustrophobic and you get a sense of the internal suffocation that the victims of the atrocities are feeling. Fontaine has directed this extremely thoughtfully in a way that I am not sure a man could have achieved. This is also extremely balanced and nothing is shoved down your throat. Rather people’s faiths and belief systems are explored sensitively.
Not always pleasant but always engaging this is a wonderful film that will leave you with a lump in your throat and it made me want to immediately learn more about the source material. A wonderful testament to the women who suffered through this era, this is a story that deserved to be told and is extremely relevant as we continue to hear about ongoing atrocities in modern war zones. A word of advice though – bring your tissues as your eyes may moisten somewhat!