The Innocents challenges the structure of faith

The Innocents considers what matters most to a group of nuns left traumatized by rape in the wake of World War II. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films The Innocents considers what matters most to a group of nuns left traumatized by rape in the wake of World War II. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films

Director Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents takes place in Warsaw in December 1945, when much of the world was ecstatic at the conclusion of World War II, yet those most affected were too deeply traumatized to feel anything close to relief. And for many in the occupied territory of Poland, the horrors continued long after hostilities had technically ended.

Based on a true story, The Innocents follows a young French doctor working for the Red Cross, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is asked by a nearby convent to assist them through a difficult ordeal. Many of the nuns are pregnant after having been raped by Soviet troops, and to add to their torment, they must keep this fact a secret for fear of being persecuted and having their convent closed. It falls on Mathilde to fulfill her duties to the Red Cross while secretly attending to these young women, which is unfortunately made more difficult by the convent’s authoritative, paranoid abbess.

Fontaine keeps the film’s horrific events, both described and depicted, and the broader message in equal focus at all times. As a story, The Innocents is a sensitive recounting of women’s hardship that reminds us that the wounds of war never fully heal, while as a film, it’s a thoughtful investigation into places where abstract notions and material reality intersect. If one is genuine in whatever it is she believes, how necessary is it to be obedient to the structure of that belief? The convent’s abbess is something of a terror, seemingly more concerned about avoiding scandal and maintaining devotion to her authority than to the physical and mental wellbeing of those in her care.

Mathilde faces her own struggle between ideals and implementation; she is a Communist—though not a card-carrying one, she is eager to point out—yet has no love for the Soviets, who are responsible for the horror at the convent and who nearly have their way with her at a roadblock. Her respect for the health and free will of the nuns is more valuable to her than her disagreement with their faith and her constant annoyance with the abbess. As much as possible, Fontaine makes each individual nun her own fully developed character where other filmmakers may have made them one-dimensional for the purpose of evoking sympathy. Some are fully committed to their vows, others would rather return to the outside world, while some are unsure of their faith yet cherish the structure of life in the convent.

As is often the case with historical films, it could be said that the ending of The Innocents is a little too convenient and loses some of the direction that propelled it beyond similarly themed period pieces. However, the characters and their struggle are so engrossing and beyond the standard pity-me tropes, one might not mind the tonal shift. The Innocents places intelligence, ideas and emotional solidarity on equal levels. Beliefs matter, structures designed to implement them matter, but establishing human connections in unlikely places and ensuring one another’s welfare matters more.

Playing this week 

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Bad Moms, Ben-Hur, Don’t Breathe, Equity, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hands of Stone, Kubo and the Two Strings, Mechanic: Resurrection, Morgan, Nerve, Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, The Secret Life of Pets, Southside With You, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, War Dogs 

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Don’t Breathe, Don’t Think Twice, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hell or High Water, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Light Between Oceans, Pete’s Dragon, Sausage Party, Southside With You, Suicide Squad, War Dogs

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