“Behind all joy lies the cross.” It is hard to cite anything else as provocative, or enigmatic, as that single line of dialogue in French director Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents. It is a line that leaves one profoundly disturbed. And bewildered. Is the speaker, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), offering up a morbid allegory for all Catholic thought? Or a shorthand psychoanalysis of one convent’s worth of tortured souls?
“The Innocents,” which concerns nuns who have been raped and impregnated in a Polish convent at the end of World War II, is complex enough to make one wonder about a lot of things. Its subjects certainly do. Consider Maria’s personal evolution of faith. “At first,” she says, “you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes—and I think it always comes—when your father lets go. You’re lost, alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers…. This the cross we have to bear.”
And in this case, the cross has blighted all joy. It is December 1945, and Maria and her sisters all have been victimized multiple times by Soviet soldiers; seven have become pregnant; all are about to go into labor. Their Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) is desperate to keep it all secret, afraid the church will close her convent. She is abetted in her cover-up by the fact that the victims harbor feelings of shame and guilt that are virtually unbearable. Their spirituality and humanity are in conflict with each other; the sacrifice that is being asked of them is too much to bear. As it was for Jesus, the shadow of the cross is inescapable. What the sisters need is a miracle. Or, at the very least, an angel.
She arrives, as incongruous as a Samaritan, in the person of Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a doctor stationed at a local French Red Cross hospital. The mission there is French casualties; the Poles are not its concern. But Mathilde, a Communist and an atheist, glimpses—through the smudged frame of a frosted window—the icon-like image of a young nun, outside, praying in the snow for the help she has thus far been refused. Mathilde is moved and, against orders, abandons her duties and heads for the convent-cum-maternity ward. There, the main struggle is not so much childbirth and labor but with the tortured psyches of the much-abused women.
What is refreshing about “The Innocents” is its attempt to explain the inexplicable, without presuming any success. “Don’t you believe in Providence?” bellows the Mother Superior, passing the moral buck to God. (She is given a perfectly nasty portrayal by Agata Kulesza, who played the Stalinist aunt in another nun-centric Polish movie, “Ida.”) She may be bad, but she nevertheless provokes questions about God’s culpability, or indifference, regarding the kind of horrors the movie recounts: about Polish crimes against Jews during the Holocaust; about the fundamentalist stripe of religiosity that could result in the kind of mental anguish the sisters suffer in 1945, or which might lead to honor killings among Muslims today.
Like Sister Maria’s description of hobbled faith, the movie wrestles with a number of competing tensions and echoes, and the undertow of history might carry one away from the main flow of a very tense and intriguing narrative. Which is O.K. It is what makes for an intellectually engaging movie.
“The Innocents” has sympathy for religious faith, but does not share it; Mathilde is ever the voice of reason and rationality and the fact that she is an atheist seems almost a provocation in itself. But to Fontaine’s credit (and the other four writers credited with the script) there is no collective reaction among the nuns to their individual plights, spiritually or otherwise. One is too shamed to submit to an examination by Mathilde; another is ready leave the convent at war’s end and find her Russian soldier (the one who protected her from the other rapists). One nun embraces her newborn instinctively; another gives birth on the floor, unable to accept what has happened to her. One nurses another’s unfed baby. For all the unpleasantness and what many audiences would find repellent behavior among some, the nuns of “The Innocents” are portrayed in rather unusual fashion—namely, as women. And yes, it is a feminist film: Mathilde, relegated at the hospital to assisting rather than performing surgery, is upbraided by a superior officer for her lack of “discipline.” Sisters, then and now, would likely be sympathetic.
Come to think of it, there are very few other male principals in “The Innocents,” save for Samuel Lehmann (Vincent Macaigne), one of Mathilde’s colleagues, her lover and a wrily disillusioned Jew. “There are a few of us left,” he tells the Mother Superior, whose reaction to him is not flattering (to her). He accompanies Mathilde when the children start coming more than one at a time, and the presence of a man is more than some of the sisters can stand. But Vincent provides proof that some goodness can be found everywhere, although the Soviet military could make some doubt it. History has concluded that the vaunted Red Army was largely a horde of psychopathic rapists who assaulted millions of women throughout Europe as they made their way to Berlin; that “The Innocents” is “based on actual events” seems an understatement.
Mathilde, on the other hand, is more specific and heroic: She is based on a real French Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac, who aided all kinds of Polish women—in maternity wards as well as convents—who had been raped during the war. She was also a member of the French Resistance. “The Innocents” recounts only a fraction of what she contributed. The film spares us the car accident that claimed her life, immediately after the war, but also lets us know that her legacy lived on.