Film & Television

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

Also at the heart of The Innocents is a community of powerful women. The cast, half Polish and half French (the movie is in both languages), is superb. Mathilde is portrayed by Lou de Laâge, a popular young television star, who has already been nominated twice as “Most Promising Actress” by the French Academy Awards. In her first grownup role, de Laâge is mesmerizing; she strikes a poignant balance between bravery and vulnerability. Although she speaks her mind with confidence, at one point protecting the convent from Russian soldiers by quickly outwitting them, she is just as expressive in silence. Fontaine and cinematographer Caroline Champetier takes advantage of the young actress’s abilities (as well as others in the cast), using tight close-ups that enable us to hear their thoughts as well as their voices.

The Mother Abbess is played by accomplished Polish actress Agata Kulesza, much admired for her recent work in the award-winning film Ida. Harsh and dogmatic, and willing to commit unspeakable crimes to protect her “daughters,” she somehow manages to earn our sympathy if not our approbation. Agata Buzek, another fine Polish actress, is luminous as Sister Maria, a nun who is able to see more grey area in her faith and works with Mathilde to craft a solution for their seemingly hopeless situation. The cast also includes Vincent Macaigne as Mathilde’s lover, and Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Anna Prochniak, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Helena Sujecka, and Dorota Kuduk.

In fact, there are many women involved in The Innocents behind the camera as well as onscreen, a situation I’d like to see more of in U.S. films. Perhaps that’s why the movie is so particularly powerful in its ability to dramatize the effects and aftereffects of war on women. Most movies about war (made in the U.S. or elsewhere) provide a man’s eye view. And, although The Innocents takes place as World War II was ending, the story is tragically relevant today. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, rape is used as a sanctioned weapon of war, believed to be “cheaper than bullets.” According to Fontaine, the soldier rapists in Warsaw in 1945 “didn’t feel they were committing a reprehensible act; they were authorized to do so by their superiors as a reward for their efforts.”

In a world such as this, it’s easy to understand why faith can be irreparably lost — whether you believe such nightmares are predestined by God, or simply that He allows them to happen and doesn’t intervene.

The miracle of The Innocents is that despite the tragic events and true evil that it dramatizes, it leaves you feeling hopeful — for the characters and for the world.

As Sister Maria explains to skeptic Mathilde in one of their lovelier philosophical moments together, “Faith is 24 hours of doubt for one moment of hope.”

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