A note about content: this article will discuss the multiple rapes and other forms of sexual and emotional abuse depicted in The Innocents. Accordingly, please take care in watching/reading about this film.
Set against one of the most horrific backdrops in modern human history—Poland during World War II—Anne Fontaine’s brutal yet sensitive film The Innocents (2016) brings the horror of warfare into one of the ostensibly most insular and divinely protected spaces imaginable, the convent.
Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a young French Red Cross medical student, travels to Poland to assist in the war efforts through healing and repatriating French survivors. Towards the end of her service, a nun in dire need of help approaches Mathilde, who is unable to fully understand the nun’s broken French. This physical splitting from the isolation and purification of the convent into the ruthlessness of the war-torn country marks the first of many such instances of oscillating between the two spaces, ultimately blurring and violating the moral codes that should in theory impenetrably divide them.
Mathilde quickly detects a disturbing pattern in the convent—many nuns are actually pregnant, the result of multiple, serial rapes committed by Soviet soldiers. While their condition plagues them with spiritual shame and physical distress, the nuns nonetheless attempt to hide their pregnancies and newborns from the callous Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza). Eventually, Mathilde is granted permission to deliver one of the babies and treat the mother, driving her even closer to nuns, many of whom suffer from PTSD. The film steadily intensifies both the typically pragmatic Mathilde’s emotional desperation to help these women as several more give birth, as well as the nuns’ concentrated strife within the walls of the convent, and their fears that extend outside it.
When the Mother Superior takes one newborn away from its mother, the nuns discover an even darker truth to their situation. The Mother Superior has not merely been giving away the newborns, but killing them instead. With the help of several leading sisters and Mathilde, the nuns rise up against the Mother Superior and end up taking in several orphaned Polish children, effectively obscuring the identities of their own newborns, protecting both the children and mothers. The film closes with Mathilde receiving photographs of the nuns raising the children happily and without fear.
The film’s austerity takes on an infinitely unraveling quality, allowing for the cold, frostbitten horror experienced by the nuns to speak for itself in a careful, pained whisper. The stark navy blues and charcoal blacks of the nuns’ habits against the white winter snow bleeding out of the boundaries of the exterior scenes stylizes the chilling isolation the nuns feel, both physically, emotionally, and spiritually in their experiences. The severity of the Mother Superior also links the rigidity of deep religious devotion with the banal evil and cold-heartedness belonging specifically to the mortal realm, positing her as a threat to these women in a fashion that is not completely dissimilar (though certainly less brutal) from the Soviet soldiers.
While the abusive and violent elements achieve affect through their own self-evident horror, Fontaine is also able to approach these experiences of rape, coupled with the compounding psychological trauma of spiritual shame and overwhelming sin, with admirable grace and sensitivity. Grown out of a powerful, meticulously and devotedly crafted script and further fortified by an outstanding ensemble cast, Fontaine’s characters are presented as individuals, each coping differently and distinctly with their traumas and the trauma of their community at large. The Soviet soldiers violating the walls and women of the convent is not one single brutal act, but rather fractured, nuanced individual memories and experiences, expressed in a variety of ways and conjuring a stunning mosaic of emotional performances from the film’s actors.
Intertwined with revelations of savage secrets are also moments of sublime beauty, which are undoubtedly informed and intensified by the inescapable presence of religion in the film. One striking through-line is the formidable beauty, compassion, and ultimately power of female friendship and care. Placing Mathilde as a boldly brave, intelligent, but also fundamentally compassionate character gives the film’s power a distinctly feminine energy. Likewise, the deep connection and protective spirit shared by the nuns grants agency to the film’s victims through gendered community effort. Against the background of a singularly brutal war, a realm which traditionally is linked to men and masculinity in a variety of contexts, the violation against women and their resounding self-actualized strength to move forward makes for an untold, harrowing story to be presented with the utmost respect, sensitivity, and grace.