THE INNOCENTS (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for disturbing thematic material including sexual assault, some bloody images, and brief suggestive content)
Released: July 1, 2016 limited; expands August 5
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Lou de Laâge , Agata Buzek , Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne

As a movie title, The Innocents belies its gruesome themes yet defines what (and who) this movie is ultimately about.

Sexual assault, religious legalism, communist oppression, and crises of faith. Spiritual purity literally raped by barbaric occupiers on their “victory lap”. These are all at play, in conflict with and turning on each other, slowly devouring the women they afflict. The innocents aren’t just female victims, either, or the vows of chastity they swore to live by; they’re also the lives conceived from the depraved sexual violence forced upon an order of defenseless Benedictine nuns.

It’s honestly almost too much to bear, particularly when you consider that it actually happened, but this searing yet sympathetic dramatization is a vital account worthy of particular attention, not only because of how it depicts rape’s insidious effects on women – both individually and communally – but also because it’s told by a woman (acclaimed director Anne Fontaine) in collaboration with a crew made up almost entirely of women.

It’s December 1945 in post-war Poland. The Nazis have been defeated and the Soviets are steadily asserting power over the Eastern European bloc. More specifically, it’s nine months after the Allied Forces’ victory…and a days-long “celebration” sexual assault on one Roman Catholic convent, in Warsaw, by Russian soldiers on their way back to Moscow. If you’re already queasy, I don’t blame you. You should be.

We never see these events, not even in flashback (thankfully), but we enter the story as one of the nuns is quite literally bearing the consequences of them: she’s giving birth to a baby, and there are problems. It’s chilling to see the peaceful halls of a sacred monastery pierced by excruciating, blood-curdling cries.

Worried for the lives of both mother and child, Sister Maria – one of the leaders in the convent – sneaks into town seeking professional help. There, Maria meets a Red Cross nurse named Mathilde who’s part of a French medical delegation wrapping up its post-war work before returning to France. Maria begs Mathilde to come to their aid, but in secret, and even lies by saying the woman in need is a local resident, not a nun.

Mathilde hesitates; she has no authority to agree, nor would her delegation. However, moved by compassion (and not realizing what she’s getting into), Mathilde concedes and goes to the convent. What was initially intended to be a one-time act of charity quickly escalates as Mathilde not only learns the truth of the mother’s identity but also the brutality that was ravaged upon the entire order. More daunting still: there are other pregnancies, each late in their terms.

The instincts of our modern values and openness instantly go to compassion, pity, and aid, but those were not the sensibilities of the time. The convent’s Abbess fears that if any of this is discovered, it could mean severe penalties – even ex-communication – from the Roman Catholic Church (not to mention the shame that would follow each of these women for the rest of their lives) or, worse yet, lethal consequences from local Soviet authorities just looking for reasons to subjugate and crush all religious institutions under a false guise of “justice”.

Mathilde, an atheist, is risking her own life by being there, along with the safety of her French Red Cross associates. Making matters more difficult is that Mathilde’s necessary treatments often infringe upon aspects of the chastity vows (and episcopal demands) these nuns have already had violated, causing further trauma. It’s a cluster of gut-wrenching complications, all a result of patriarchal cruelty of various forms.

Compounding these practical dangers is the crisis of faith permeating the convent. Why would God allow this? Was it His will? Did He want this to happen? If not, then how could it? No amount of prayer soothes or comforts. Increasingly, these sisters feel God-forsaken. Worst of all, the Abbess makes horrible, even heartless choices in dealing with the trial and its debilitating grief. She’s ruled by her own fears, guilt, and legalistic allegiance to the Church. Yet the film is insightful enough to show that the Abbess, even in her ruthlessness, is as much a psychological victim as any of them.

Small but substantial mercies also occur along the way, particularly as we see what bringing life into this world does to these nuns. We also see its affects on Mathilde, whose patience for pious convictions is understandably short, given the extreme circumstances. And yet she bonds with Sister Maria through honest conversations, which include religion, and is touched by the deep gratitude these victims have for her efforts – and risks – on behalf of them who have nowhere else to turn.

Lou de Laâge gives a powerfully conflicted performance as Mathilde. She’s burdened as much by a sense of isolation as she is the gravity of what she’s taken on; overwhelmed, scared, yet courageous. Agata Buzek also shines as Sister Maria, the sole figure sympathetic to all sides of this impossible situation who also summons the strength to stand up for what’s necessary in the most trying, decisive moments.

As co-writer and director, Anne Fontaine tells the story with an unflinching eye yet benevolent restraint, and a tenderness that emerges from the pain rather than diluting it. She crafts this French/Polish joint production through an austere, artful aesthetic, with images from cinematographer Caroline Champetier that evoke the rich, contrasting palette of Caravaggio’s baroque portraits.

It’s a testament to Fontaine’s honesty that, as we endure this crucible, we begin to wonder what God could possibly salvage from something so bleak. The scars seem truly irreparable. And yet an unexpected grace does emerge. We see how God can bring about a new season – and bestow unexpected vocations – out of truly grisly horrors. Torments are not only healed, but that healing expands beyond itself in the most beautiful, life-affirming way.

And in perhaps the most paradoxical (and providential) irony of all, we see how God uses an unGodly Samaritan to bring it all about.

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