Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.
This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.
A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.
As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.
The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.
Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.
Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.
Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.
Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.
The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures. Not rated
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment