The Innocents (2016)
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Anne Fontaine's ("Coco Before Chanel"), The Innocents (aka Agnus Dei) tells one personal story of the brutality of the "liberating" Red Army from the point of view of a young French doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laage, "Breathe") caring for French soldiers at a nearby Red Cross hospital. Based on real events, recounted in notes by Madeleine Pauliac, a Red Cross doctor, Mathilde secretly takes time from her hospital duties to serve as a midwife for nuns at a Benedictine convent in Poland in 1945 that have become pregnant as a result of several visits by Russian soldiers. As the film opens, Mathilde is begged by the novice Teresa (Eliza Rycembel, "Carte Blanche") to come to the convent immediately to deliver the child of Sister Zofia (Anna Próchniak, "Warsaw '44"), who is near death.
At first reluctant, the doctor is moved by the pleas of the novice and quietly goes to the convent where she performs a C-section to remove the breech baby and save Sister Zofia's life. Shortly afterwards, another nun, Sister Anna (Katarzyna Dabrowska, "Król zycia"), collapses and the truth is revealed to her that the nuns were subjected to the assaults by Russian soldiers who came to the convent on three separate occasions resulting in the pregnancy of six nuns and one novice. Giving assistance to the Abbess (Agata Kulesza, "Ida") and her young assistant Maria (Agata Buzek, "Redemption"), the French doctor is sworn to secrecy to prevent the nuns' pregnancy from becoming a blemish on the reputation of the convent.
The ordeal is a test for the nuns' religious faith who must deal with the fear that they will be punished by God for failing to live up to their vow of chastity and Mathilde comes to respect that many of the nuns uphold their beliefs, even though many believe that God has abandoned them. More reflective than others, Polish actress Buzek is remarkable as Maria, a complex nun who admits that being a nun in these circumstances feels like "twenty-four hours of doubt for one minute of hope." When Mathilde has her own close encounter with Russian soldiers who try to rape her at a roadblock, her bond with the nuns rises to a new level of empathy.
Though she was raised by Communist parents and is a non-believer, Mathilde develops a close relationship with the nuns and is moved by their devotional chants and returns to the convent each night to deliver the children of the remaining nuns. The Abbess tells Mathilde that the babies are taken to a sympathetic aunt but a deeper secret is hidden. A semi-love interest develops when Mathilde establishes a friendship with Jewish doctor Samuel (Vincent Macaigne, "Two Friends"), her medical supervisor who joins her at the convent to deliver the remaining babies and their engaging conversations are the film's only light note.
The Innocents is a heartbreaking film that portrays a community that is helpless in the face of brutality and whose resolve is tested to the breaking point when a death occurs in the convent and the question of the disposition of the newborn children takes us to an unexpected dark place. Lou de Laage is outstanding as the sensitive doctor whose compassion for others allows her to thrive in an uncomfortable situation and whose quick thinking saves the nuns from another encounter with the Russians. Her performance succeeds because she is also one of the innocents, those who are willing to give of themselves to others without standing in judgment.
One is reminded of the words of Mother Teresa who said, "If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway." Though it is shot in darker hues and is often bleak, The Innocents is also an uplifting experience.
This quiet little story of Russian soldiers raping Polish nuns balances that trend in movies. Set after the war in 1945 as the Russians take over Poland, but the French Red Cross is still there, it's a reminder that there are always a few good people in the midst of the thugs. May the young French actress Lou de Laage have a long and happy career. She certainly has a good start here.
Besides excellent acting and story telling, maybe it's the filming and mood created by this movie that makes it so good. You would think it painful to watch considering the subject, but it's not. Great shots of snowy, muddy roads and rambling old trucks offset by warm glow of music in a candle lit bar. Then the nuns, in a bleak cold stone refuge, yet in spite of their hardship, they are full of heart and life.
A powerful film that I highly recommend
The linear plot line is as austere as the film's narrative. We meet a serene and devout convent of Benedictine nuns in Poland who go about their daily prayer with quiet conviction and meticulous adherence to ritual. The serenity is shattered by the scream of a nun about to give birth. One nun fetches a French Red Cross medical intern Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laáge) who sneaks out of the aid mission to help. She learns that Soviet soldiers had raped the nuns and several births were imminent. Mathilde is a non-believer yet is bewildered by the strength of the nun's faith and compelled to help. The nuns believe they are complicit in sin, and some are unable to even submit to medical examination while others do so with deep shame. The tension between sin and evil erupts when the baby is born and Mother Superior takes it out for fostering but instead leaves it in the forest. With more births coming, a convent full of babies cannot survive under Soviet occupation. It is Mathilde who finds an ingenious solution that ensures their survival.
Within this narrative arc, there are several strands that explore the nature and practice of faith by a group of women with varied backgrounds and different relationships with their god. Throughout the story, the tension between belief and logic creates a haunting presence. Young Mathilde struggles in a vortex of faith, science and evil, and comes to learn that there are no absolutes. The dystopia of war shatters all, yet faith survives in love and devotion to helping others. She grows emotionally with the experience just as the nun's learn tolerance of those who do not share their faith.
While the film has a strong cast of fine performers, it is Lou de Laage who shines brightly in a difficult role. She seamlessly traverses a wide emotional range from inspired awe to resolute determination to help, including restrained romantic explorations with a senior colleague. The portrait-like cinematography conveys the bleak landscape and convent solitude with a sympathetic lens that avoids despair. The film is a tribute not only to the violated nuns but to women of all nationalities mistreated at the hands of military forces. Rape in war continues in modern times, with many nations in denial and others struggling with unresolved shame. This is not an entertaining story, but a dark episode of history on which light has long been needed.
Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza, are simply superb in their roles, but they are only the cherries on the top of one of the best ensemble works I've ever seen. The cinematography is breathtaking. And the story, it's more than a simple story about the horrors of war, and how it preys on the innocents. It's a story about the morals of faith. About believing in god's grace comes what may, as opposed to believing in the holiness of life. If you get a chance to see it, don't miss it - you won't regret it.
The year is 1945, just after the end of World War II. A French Red Cross unit is sent into Poland. Their mission was to care for French survivors of the camps. Among the Red Cross staff is a young medical student, Mathilde Beaulieu, played by Lou de Laâge. Early in the film, we learn a terrible secret about the nuns in a nearby convent. Many of them are pregnant, because they were raped by Russian soldiers. Mathilde learns of this, and she is allowed to enter the convent, where she meets Sister Maria, a French-speaking nun played by Agata Buzek. To go further with the plot would diminish the movie, so I'll stop at that point. Let me just say that the situation is even worse than it seems.
This is a movie that is not to be missed. Yes, it's grim, but postwar Poland was a grim place. The film takes place in winter, so snow covers everything, and even the Red Cross staff is miserable. Obviously, for the nuns in the convent, everything is much more terrible.
The acting in the film by the two lead actors is outstanding. Also, the ensemble acting was wonderful. There were no weak links, and no obviously staged scenes. Everything looked real--cold, dark, and threatening--but real.
This is one of those movies where many frames could be lifted from the film and used as a photograph. My compliments to cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who did a brilliant job.
We saw this film at the excellent Little Theatre in Rochester, NY. It will work well enough on the small screen, but the large screen gives you a better sense of the isolation of the convent. The nuns don't expect help from outside. They only expect harm to come to them. Mathilde is the exception, and they (and we) understand that. Small screen or large screen, don't miss this movie!
P.S. The film is based on the experiences of a French doctor--Madeleine Jeanne Marie Pauliac. She was a member of the French Resistance, and did, indeed work tirelessly in Poland after the war. For artistic reasons, director Fontaine focused on Dr. Pauliac's work with the pregnant nuns. The rest of her accomplishments would also make a fascinating movie.
Whenever you hear the word/abbreviation 'WWII', it always bound with nazi Germans. Since this tale takes place just after the war, when the Soviet took over the Poland from them, it is set to reveal one of the extremely hidden secrets. Just imagine how secret it is, like you have read many books and have seen many films regarding the WWII, but you have never heard about this, until now. It is a heart rending tale, but the thing is everything's about the aftermath, how they handled their state of condition.
Mathilde, the French doctor is fetched by a nun from the nearby convent is shocked when she reached there to see most of them are in the final stage of their pregnancy. They were sexually abused by the Soviet soldiers, but now she as to keep it quiet as requested by the mother superior. She's being an atheist and to whom she's treating, the believers, is exactly the opposite kind. But not just her, the nuns as well put aside their differences to overcome their situation.
❝For us nuns, the end of the war does not mean the end of fear.❞
It's right on the coldest winter, does not tell about the original violence, but there's still a few incidents about the army atrocities, how they treated innocent nuns, even the Red Cross members. But remember nothing was the actual depiction. It would have been even better if it was a documentary film. Doing some research and telling us the tale, reading exactly as what was written in the diary. But the film was not bad, except the scene to scene, event to event it was very slow to move, except right on the point.
The story has a twist, but it was not like very powerful. It depends on how you would consider it. Because for me, I felt it was too cruel, hard to take on. The story about church people means, you would expect a gentle kind. Or even in such situation, as in this film, to react as much as possibly generously as what they're known for. But in the first place, it was no ones fault. They all fighting for the same reason, especially keeping the outside world in mind, each one reacted differently. So it is understandable, but not all the acts were respectable.
As the director said in her interview, this is a period film, but pretty much the same in the contemporary world where war is on. The violence against the innocent women. So it is a debatable topic. And if it was directed by some male filmmaker, he might have risked with the violences in the flashback scenes to bring more depth in the narration. The present film is kind of compromises on that, but still not easy to watch everything it shows. Particularly for the families. Great performances by all. One of the best films on this theme and of the year. The film is not to be ignored. Despite not about the war, but just like 'Under Sandet', about the following event.
The actors are marvelous and convey the prevailing feelings of incomprehension and guilt that permeates the convent. They feel they are to blame for the fate that has befallen them. Although they are pliable the Abbess is not, and here is the crux of the problem; the dichotomy of thought between young and old, modern (as of 1945) and traditional. "The Innocents" is an excellent character study and is ultimately a 'women's picture'. It is filmed in color but feels like a black-and-white picture. So starkly obvious is the solution that I struggled to accept the prevailing sentiments of the nuns, with which I found myself at odds. As such, I found it not as compelling as some other reviewers did.
What I liked the best is the setting and the mood of the film. It is quite dark, quite cold ( set in the winter which somehow give something chilly to the already chilly and horrible story) and quite claustophobic ( if I may say that - since the most of the film is done inside a monastery and rooms/cells inside it).
The story is gripping and powerful. You can not really stay 'untouched' by the tragedies that the sisters have undergone. And although the scenes were not shown when it happened to them - the scene where it almost happened to the nurse was enough to get the glimpse of what must have been like.
The actors were all great - sisters and the nurse especially. I had a bit of a trouble to 'get into' the main doctor's character. I understand French and his way of speaking and making sentences was quite quite strange. But I guess it is meant to be like that.
I also liked it was a mix of Polish and French. I know French and Polish is similar in some ways to Serbian so it was also nice to compare some words.
I do recommend this film. Though must say that winter time would be more suitable for watching it ( to really get into the atmosphere).
That this packs almost no emotional punch is down almost solely to the writing. In this genre, rounded characters who develop and use of moral dilemma are key and both were noticeably absent here. What we are left with is simply a historical reenactment.
Mathilde is the French Red Cross worker who comes to the aid of the nuns to help them give birth to the babies that are the product of the rapes. Her bind is to keep this - and therefore the nature of her aid to the nuns - secret. This is where I feel moral dilemma as a device could have been used more, because her work at the red cross is equally as important and humanitarian and this begins to suffer - but the writing never lets you in on the series of personal revelations Mathilde would have gone through toward the realisation that helping the nuns takes precedence for her. You therefore get no sense of a character arc and this is embodied by the curiously vacant performance of Lou de Lâage. However, its really the script which does not help her.
The nuns themselves are not really characters, but two different sets of qualities. The older ones are stoic and taciturn and the younger ones are justifiably innocent and scared. You never get to understand who they are and there is a strange lack of religious context. There is the questioning of faith and God's will, of course. But the world of the Bible, its characters and lessons are their whole universe. How do they view what happened to them? Through the prism of Mary Magdalene? Through Jesus? Through the Book of Job? Their philophising seems to come from an authorial, rather than a character, voice. For a film which evokes this world much more clearly, I really recommend Doubt.
There is some very sloppy direction. Early on Mathilde is told off during an operation because of a lack of attentiveness. The doctor yanks down his mask to speak to her. How come he can do this? Is the mask not necessary after all? Why wear it in the first place? Failures of detail here really take me out of a scene.
The acting is generally very good and there is some beautiful cinematography. But the writing is lazy and in places so is the direction. For me, this was a missed opportunity to tell a compelling story.
The acting, filming and the seriousness of this were all done well. It manages to catch your attention and never gives the viewer the opportunity to look away. I'm glad I took the time to watch it.
These two characters, which embody very well some of the tensions that were deliberated during the world war period, find a perfect justification this time on the dialogues, silences and actions. The polish has been a traditional segregated population and, somehow, this nation has found its historical version on the figure of the European martyr. So, we have an intense, but predictable, argument between these two evocations of a women. Marianne is obviously characterized by a French woman, who is always willing to attend others, who finds its better version on a nurse. Her conflicts end up always with a condescending gesture. She is made to represent the good between an ocean of evil, but with the French usual hostility.
But the spectator loses its distance from the world context very easily, because of the intimate voice of the film. The virginal victims are in the middle of a complex scenario, in which violence is expressed on every little action. But this portray of the WWII has a common place that we, the occidental spectators, are very used to. The evil soviets, closer to madness than ever before, carriers of a voluptuous and dark behaviour. At this point, the idea is well exposed: Marianne rescues and supports the oppressed nations, the martyrs, by the horrible and destructive hands of Stalin. One more time, we see the same stereotype on the screen.
Nevertheless, it is important to say that beyond this argumentative political line, which is subtly exposed, there are very rich elements that make of this one a remarkable film. Not because of the predictable approach it has, but because of the portray of a very moving case which is worthy to be seen. The photography stablishes a constant dialogue with the interior dramas of the nuns. The sound has a very powerful role, which is complemented with the excellent acting skills of the women. It is poetical when it demands to be.
Imagine Poland in 1945 liberated by the Soviet Union but practically occupied BY THE Soviet army, waiting for some Polish government to come into power. Imagine a nunnery, a convent in other words, with nuns being searched by rough Soviet soldiers who search everything particularly the nuns and not with their fingers, mind you, and these rough visitors leave seven of them pregnant and one with syphilis (the abbess). Imagine a mission of the French Red Cross there, under the command of a Colonel who used to be an extreme right militant before the war, with a Jewish doctor, the last survivor of his family, and his assistant, a young woman from a communist family.
The woman and then the man get involved in the situation in the convent in spite of the abbess who is a fundamentalist and imposes rules from another time: the nuns are not supposed to show their body and be touched physically, even by a female doctor. The rapes are a stain, a sin and the nuns are made to feel guilty about it: the trauma of the rape is turned into an inescapable practically unhealable form of psychotic PTSS. Seven children will be born. The first two will be taken by the abbess and she will – in absolute secret – entrust them back to God, in other words expose them in order for them to die. She commits a crime that is also a sin (Thou shalt not kill) in order to cover the situation. She is discovered as a murderess by the other nuns in time for the last five children to be born and saved by one younger nun who is the actual caretaker of the convent and who can count on the help of the French communist lady doctor.
The end is optimistic. The convent is turned into an orphanage. They host orphans living or surviving in the street and that covers up the fact that the babies are the children of rape.
If the end is maybe too optimistic the film shows very well what happened in Poland from 1943 to 1946. The Soviet army was ruthless as soon as it moved west pushing the Germans back. It took absolutely no prisoners among the German troops, which I know from experience due to the testimony of my mother-in-law whose first husband was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht on the Polish front in 1944. At the same time they got rid – or let the Germans get rid – of the Jews from the ghetto in Warsaw. In the meantime they trapped the remnants of some Polish liberation army and managed to have them all shot in some forest east and they respected no rights of no Pole. Looting, pillaging and raping were the little brothers and sisters of the big siblings WAR and NO QUARTER. Supreme Lord have mercy on us. We have to think of Led Zeppelin's song:
Close the door, put out the light. You know they won't be home tonight. The snow falls hard and don't you know? The winds of Thor are blowing cold. They're wearing steel that's bright and true They carry news that must get through.
They choose the path where no-one goes.
They hold no quarter.
Walking side by side with death, The devil mocks their every step The snow drives back the foot that's slow, The dogs of doom are howling more They carry news that must get through, To build a dream for me and you
They choose the path where no-one goes.
They hold no quarter. They ask no quarter. The pain, the pain without quarter. They ask no quarter. The dogs of doom are howling more!
And out of that carnage and mess a government will come up under the leadership of the Polish United Workers' Party, in other words a quasi communist party, supported by the Soviet Union and this government will tolerate and let live the Catholic Church and its institutions, including convents and monastery. So the happy ending might be considered as possible. But the whole of Europe went through the worst imaginable traumatic experience in those years, which is still surviving today in the European consciousness and culture.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
Couple of comments: this is the latest film from French director Anne Fontaine, who most recently brought us the engaging "Gemma Bovery" and some years before that "Coco Before Chanel". Here she tackles a tough subject matter, namely what is a convent of about 25-30 nuns to do when, raped by Russian soldiers, a number of them become pregnant. (In the movie's end credits I picked up that the film is inspired by the French woman Madeleine Pauliac's Red Cross missions in Poland. The movie's script is from a nephew of Pauliac,) Fontaine thankfully decides to keep things somber and the movie almost feels like it's shot in black and white. Beware: there were a number of scenes that I had to cover my eyes, literally. How this movie is rated PG-13, instead of R, is a mystery to me. The role of Mathilde is played by up-and-coming French actress Lou de Laâge. Surely we have not seen the last of her. The performances from the nuns are equally up to par, but at times it's tough to keep track of whom is who, as they frankly all pretty much look alike, resulting from the way they are dressed. The movie was shot on location in Poland. Two years ago Poland brought us another outstanding post WWII nun drama called "Ida". "The Innocents" readily reminded of "Ida", although I think "Ida" was still a little better (it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language movie, if I recall).
"The Innocents" finally opened at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati this weekend, and I couldn't wait to see it. The Saturday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended nicely. I had expected it to be a packed house, but that was not the case, to my surprise. At the same time, it's not like you will walk away from "The Innocents" saying, well, that was a jolly good time!". "The Innocents" is not that type of movie. If on the other hand you are in the mood for a top notch foreign drama that deals with some very tough issues (and happens the be based on real-life events), then I would readily suggest you check out "The Innocents", be it in the theater, on Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "The Innocents" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Nuns had chosen to remain celibate,but become victim of rape and lose virginity. Lead sister in convent tried to keep this secret to avoid their condemnation and dismissal from society. Few babies were sent to their relatives, few were sent to adaptation house. One baby was left abandoned over snow-capped hill to let somebody own it.
This movie is excellent art. Visuals, colour schemes are stunning. Costumes of nuns, their paths of celibacy,devotion towards Jesus, sermons recited by them are spiritually blissful. Suffering and outcry of women during childbirth is heartbreaking.
Women were looked only as an instrument of sexual gratification, while they were performing exhausting task in cooking, cleaning and other households. This film indirectly raises questions upon inhuman behavior by during war. This film reminded me an Oscar winning film, Ida, based upon nun who chose to devote herself to god.