There are many movies made about World War II from all over Europe, the United States and even Canada. The classics are usually embedded deep within the conflict of it, as recent as films like David Ayers’ Fury, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and as far back as The Bridge On The River Kwai or Stalag 17. What we don’t get a lot of, as a cinema going public, is a story dealing with the aftermath and fallout of World War II and we’re not just talking about the concentration camps, which are dealt with quite a bit and most definitively by last year’s Son Of Saul. Still, within the clean-up and rescue effort, there are deep stories of emotional strife and courageous actions that rarely see the light of celluloid. The Innocents is one of these stories.
Director Anne Fontaine has been working in the industry for over thirty-five years and directing films for a couple years shy of twenty-five years. A few of her films have been celebrated with nominations here and there but The Innocents looks to be the crowning achievement of her directing career, already picking up festival awards, sure to be in contention once the Academy starts accepting submissions for next year’s foreign film awards. The subject matter of this film is so interesting, in both religious and human emotion, that it’s hard to forget once the credits start to roll.
The movie follows Mathilde Beaulieu, a nurse working for the French Red Cross, sort of based on the French physician and resistance fighter Madeleine Pauliac. Stationed in Poland, she works alongside her colleagues to assist survivors of the German prison camps, trying to pick up the skills she needs to from the lead physician, Dr. Samuels, who she is also having a romantic affair with. She seems to find her life calling one night when, on her scheduled rounds, she comes across a nun praying outside in the snow, desperate for someone to come to her convent. Mathilde obliges, unsure of what is in store for her there and without the knowledge of anyone within the Red Cross.
Mathilde is shocked to find what this young nun has brought her to, as most of the nuns in the convent are with child. Even more shocking, all these nuns’ pregnancies are the product of rape, and even worse, they were assaulted by the Russian soldiers that had come through to clear out the Nazi threat that had taken over Poland. Still under the constant threat of more assaults and being forbidden from helping these ladies of God by both the forces on either side or the organization she works for, Mathilde pushes for what’s morally right to her and puts her own life on the line to help these women.
It should be said, first off, that The Innocents is a bit of a slow mover. It’s a hard look at some abominable acts that play through our main character, Mathilde, in a study of her psyche. The interesting thing about her character is that she chooses to help these nuns out of human compassion rather than playing of any religious servitude or spiritual guilt. She is a non-believer of any sort of religion, possibly burned out by all of the atrocities she’s seen and gaping wounds and destroyed limbs she’s had to mend over the duration of the war.
More interesting, some of the nuns may be in the same boat sailing towards being non-believers, also due to circumstance. Many of the devout members start to question God’s plan for them just by the allowing of these brutal happenings. The Mother Superior struggles to keep the faith alive among her group, as she also may have been a victim of the assaults herself and the actual practice of their religion has lapsed a bit. Then there are the women who were sent there as a hope for them to be reformed. The rapes have just put another obstacle in their ascension to a better place in life and have just further darkened their feelings about God and His plan. The psychology of this is absolutely fascinating.
Anne Fontaine is on her game in this film, making the entire film a well shot and compelling looking feature that draws you in as Mathilde’s story unfolds. As much as the nuns in the convent are the main plot point in the film, Fontaine never wavers from having her as the driving force of the film. She goes from a meek helper in the beginning of the film to a strong and fiercely unwavering force by the end. With an almost fully woman led production team, this film means more to women than just the subject matter portrayed in the film. This whole thing from the ground up is a testament to the strong spirit of women in general.
With sweeping shots across snowy landscapes, the gray stone of the convent and the natural light filtering through the dark rooms of the Red Cross clinic, The Innocents is a compelling story of both the high and low points of the human condition and may also be regarded as a sort of statement about religion that doesn’t seem to settle on either side. I couldn’t get a read on the directors final feeling about devout belief but I could see a free thinking within her film that I felt was very interesting, played in a time where free thinking was nowhere close to the norm. The Innocents is a dark film about human depravity, yet still has enough of a light remaining to show the optimism of emotional recovery. I give it a three and a half out of five.