There’s the sound of shuffling feet as a procession of black-robed women viewed from behind move swiftly through the shabby ruins of their convent on the way to prayer. Seven times a day, lined against two walls facing one another, they chant the daily Office. Their voices are strong, collectively beautiful, praising God and revealing not a clue of the terrible, almost unimaginable, suffering they have endured. It is Poland in 1945, the Germans have been driven out by the advancing Russian army; but Poland’s wounds are many and brutal—some too brutal to be revealed.
As darkness falls a young novice nun slips out into the cold night and hurries through the woods and snow to the next town where the French Red Cross has established a unit to care exclusively for French citizens, wounded solders and freed prisoners. But she is desperate, bursts into the infirmary and distracts a young woman doctor, Mathilde (Lou De Laage), but is pushed aside. Yet, a few minutes later, Mathilde sees her kneeling in the snow in prayer and joins her. Together, in an ambulance, they rush back to the convent where a woman’s screams echo through the sacred halls. A pregnant nun is struggling to give birth.
The film has been well named twice. First, it was “Agnus Dei,” a reference to the Mass prayer and hymn, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The current title, “The Innocents,” is deliberately ambiguous: Innocence can indicate ignorance of things about life that everyone should know; or it means unspoiled, sinless, not responsible for suffering or pain. In the story on which the film is based, the arriving Russian army occupied the convent and raped 25 of the sisters, some 40 times; 20 were killed and five had to face pregnancy. The mother superior (Agata Kulusza) interprets their sufferings as God’s will and demands absolute secrecy, as if the rapes and pregnancies were sins committed by the nuns that must be hidden from the faithful. To the superior, Mathilde and Sister Maria, a nun who has had some worldly experience and supports the doctor, threaten the holy image that the convent must project. But Mathilde insists that without proper care the nun and child may die.
Though dressed the same, not all nuns are alike. One giggles when the doctor touches her body, and other refuses treatment and falls out of bed. Mathilde virtually skips her regular job and enlists her French doctor colleague, the rotund, bearded Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) in her cause. That Mathilde is a communist and Samuel is a Jew adds a nice twist to the plot, but nuns themselves, who now must rethink their cloister rules, struggle to understand anew their own bodies, which they had dedicated to God as “spouses of Christ,” as one after the other they give birth and nurse their children.
The director, Anne Fontaine, has insisted that spirituality is the heart of the film and that she, a Catholic, made two spiritual retreats in Benedictine communities to experience the lives of the novices in the film. Fontaine told an interviewer that she wants to convey how fragile faith is; in the film Sister Maria confides to Mathilde that one must experience “24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope.” Faith is not the cement that holds the community together. Rather, it seems to us, that through the experience of motherhood—the babies that are born are cared for by the sisters—the community is now bound together not just by the daily prayers but by the love of little children.
But “The Innocents” does not allow sentimentality to dominate. One nun gives her child up for adoption and leaves to have some worldly fun. Another dies mysteriously. We see her bleeding body sprawled out in the courtyard. Did she jump? Another has pretended to put the babies up for adoption, but we see her trek out into the snow-covered countryside with a basket under her arm. On a hilltop she places the basket at the foot of a cross and blesses the infant on the forehead and leaves it. In effect, it’s murder. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.”