This is my review of The Innocents [Blu-ray].
The setting is rural Poland in the aftermath of World War Two. Unable to bear any long the anguished cries of pain which the pure-voiced chanting cannot drown out, a young nun tramps through the snow to the French Red Cross hospital to seek help, with the insistence that the Polish Catholic authorities must not get to hear of it. When a young French nurse called Mathilde is eventually prevailed upon to drive to the convent, she discovers that not only is one nun in labour, but that several others are heavily pregnant, having been raped by boorish Soviet Russian soldiers. As an atheist from a communist-sympathising background, it is hard for Mathilde to comprehend that, far from being supportive, the Catholic Church would close the convent down, causing hardship to all the nuns, who would also be rejected by their families, if the truth ever became known. A further frustration is that the nuns believe it a sin to remove their clothing, let alone be touched, as part of the essential business of giving them medical aid. If the mothers can be saved, what is to be done with the children? At what price should one place religious belief or duty over acts of basic humanity or the expression of natural human emotion?
What could be an unbearably harrowing tale is made a memorable and thought-provoking film through the well-developed plot, focusing on a few specific, clearly drawn personalities to show different points of view as events unfold. The scenes are very convincing in their apparent authenticity, the French Director Anne Fontaine having undertaken very thorough research of the real-life situations on which the film is based. There is a striking contrast between the convent and the hospital. In the former, calm routine prevails against the odds, with Mathilde finding herself moved by the beauty of the singing, but fear, grief and violence keep breaking through the delusion that rules and rituals can carry on as normal. In the crowded hospital with its makeshift operating theatre, Mathilde and the Jewish doctor who fancies her work to the point of exhaustion, then seek release in dancing, drinking vodka and casual sex in the knowledge that, in a few weeks, they maybe posted on separate ways. Meanwhile, the orphaned street children sell cigarettes for coins and clamber over a coffin for fun. The film may suggest that the flawed, secular world is more honest and humane, but the young nun Maria’s ability to maintain both her faith and her integrity support the other side of the argument.
The direction seems flawless apart from the details of a few scenes which I found confusing since the nuns tend to look so similar in their habits. The film has been criticised for a failure to analyse issues in depth and for a rather saccharine ending. Instead, I felt that the Director takes the mature approach of sparking questions in our minds, but leaving it to us to formulate our own answers, while the ending is merely a convenient stopping point, with much yet to be resolved.