Anne Fontaine fashions a harrowing true-life tale into compelling, uplifting cinema
Not to be confused with the 1961 frightener, Anne Fontaine's latest delivers chills of a different kind. The Innocents bravely confronts some of the less than heroic behaviour of Allied soldiers in the smouldering ruins of World War II. This French-Polish co-production from the director of Coco Before Chanel is inspired by a tragic true story, one that shows how devotion to God offers no protection from marauding masculinity.
Set in Poland in 1945, it deftly avoids a dour tone as it follows French Red Cross medic Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is distracted from her work treating concentration camp survivors when she is called to a convent. There, hidden in its midst, are nuns and novices who have fallen pregnant following their rape at the hands of Russian soldiers. The Abbess (Agata Kulesza) is hostile to Mathilde's intervention, forcing her to work in great secrecy and at considerable personal risk; while, to complicate matters further, the sisters' vows cause them to resist examination.
Rather than diving headfirst into the misery of the situation, The Innocents acknowledges that the events are as philosophically intriguing as they are emotionally devastating. It makes much of the pious environs and the women's quiet dignity, as they try to get their heads around an ordeal which has compromised their chastity, jeopardised their faith and that turns many of them into mothers, a role they are uniquely unprepared for.
It's many miles from the wild-eyed nuns-in-crisis classics The Devils and Black Narcissus and Fontaine's restraint means her film can feel a little artistically hemmed in, before it reaches a conclusion that's perhaps a shade sentimental. Although The Innocents is less visually striking than recent peer (and Oscar winner) Ida, it has its own pleasures in the sensitive rendering of an appalling plight, the cogent presentation of complex issues, and in a number of stirring scenes.
Playing the glamorous, determined doctor, de Laâge (The Wait) makes for a riveting and commercially appealing eyes-and-ears, but the film really comes alive in the poignant performance of Agata Buzek (who also played a nun in Jason Statham curio Hummingbird) as the compassionate, relatively worldly Sister Maria. There is such warmth and wisdom in these women standing together, that what at first appears to be a story of unimaginable suffering quickly reveals itself to be a celebration of astonishing strength.
Selected release from Fri 11 Nov.