Film & Television

Movie Review: Faith Wins Out Over Fear in ‘The Innocents’


How long can faith survive in the face of unbearable fear? This is just one of the heartbreaking, soul-searching questions Anne Fontaine asks in her powerful and deeply moving new film, The Innocents.

The movie takes place outside of Warsaw in 1945. A young French doctor, Mathilde, is there on a Red Cross mission to repatriate wounded soldiers. When she is urged by a desperate novitiate to help save a dying woman at the nearby convent, she uncovers a horrific secret. Her patient is in labor and, as she soon learns, is not an unwed local girl taken in by the sisters, but a nun herself. In fact, several of the nuns are pregnant, due to a series of gang rapes by Russian soldiers.

As atrocious as the act of rape is in wartime, it is exponentially worse for these women. Having taken a vow of chastity, they regard themselves as sinners as much as victims. The prospect of eternal damnation is very real to them. “I don’t want to go to hell,” one woman sobs. Another tries to reconcile her shattered belief in God, “Why would He let this happen? What does He want me to do with this baby?” As the “Bride of Christ,” each woman has committed an utterly unpardonable act of adultery. Some believe so firmly and literally in their vows that they think it’s a mortal sin to have Mathilde even examine them.

At first, Mathilde has trouble fully grasping what has happened. She is a student of science, the young daughter of Communists, a modern woman who smokes, drinks and enjoys the conjugal company of a smitten but world-weary Jewish colleague. She insists that the nuns must report the crimes and seek the care they need. The mother superior explains their impossible situation. If the plight of the sisters is exposed, the convent will lose the support of their order. The women will be shamed and shunned by the community. And, the occupying Russians would certainly not be sympathetic; one of their missions is to disband the pre-war religious institutions. There are not many prospects for the babies either; the town in overrun by orphans.

Mathilde does what she can, disobeying the orders of her commander and continuing to visit the convent. The danger she puts herself in becomes palpable — and terrifying — when she herself is stopped by brutish soldiers late one night and nearly raped. She begins to find comfort with the sisters just as they learn to trust and rely upon her. It will take a combination of her courage and their convictions to survive.

The Innocents is loosely based on the journals of Madeleine Pauliac. Like Mathilde, Pauliac served the French Red Cross in war-torn, Russian-occupied Poland. There, she worked with rape victims, nuns as well as women who had been assaulted in maternity wards, before and after giving birth. Sadly, Pauliac died while still on duty in Warsaw in 1946.

Fontaine, who is credited as a writer here as well as director, was “immediately taken with the story” behind The Innocents. “I knew that I had a very personal connection with it. Motherhood and self-questioning with regard to faith were themes I wanted to explore. I wanted to get as close as possible to what would have been happening within these women, to depict the indescribable.” To prepare for her work, Fontaine went on two retreats in Benedictine communities, and hired nuns and priests to work as consultants on the film. She explains, “Spirituality had to be at the heart of the film.”

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