The Innocents, a superbly acted film directed by Anne Fontaine, is mainly a story about a confrontation between belief and unbelief, but also about Polish history seen from a woman's perspective.
The story takes place in the winter of 1945 in a small Polish convent. Although seriously damaged by the war, a group of nuns still lives there. One day, one of the novices goes to a nearby hospital run by the French Red Cross to bring some help. There are pregnant nuns in the convent who have been raped by the Red Army soldiers and now need assistance. It is offered to them by the young medic Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a French communist working for the Red Cross.
Fontaine shows the meeting of these two women as a clash of distinct orders. The nuns represent the world of faith, Mathilde – the world of science. They made a vow that nobody would be allowed to touch their bodies, whilst she treats her body as an object to be experimented on. While the young medic believes life to be the most important value, the nun supervisor (Agata Kulesza) considers the salvation of the soul and the rules of the convent as more significant.
There is something paradoxical in the fact that the best films about religion from the past few years are shot by the artists from secular France. Nowadays, nobody talks about the search for an absolute as uncompromisingly as Bruno Dumont, a film philosopher who would be called a blasphemer in Poland for Hadewijch and Outside Satan. Not many artists can touch the essence of faith the way Xavier Beavois did in Of Gods and Men, a film about monks killed in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War (in France the film was seen by more than three million viewers).
In The Innocents Anne Fontaine follows in the footsteps of two famous directors, Carl T. Dreyer and Robert Bresson, in asking questions about the meaning of faith, its borders, and whether a vision of eternal life can be more important than life on the earth.
Here, the most important variable is the conflict between the belongings of the body and soul. The director shows that each and every war takes away part of the meaning of life. One of the scenes shows orphans playing on a wooden coffin that stands on the hospital’s courtyard. The kids have got used to death and domesticated it. Does it mean that life is less valuable or death less ultimate? Those are another questions posed by Fontaine, another questions that, happily, lack the answers in the film.
One of the greatest features of the film is that Fontaine avoids simple judgements. The director does not stand on either side of the conflict between faith and science. She does not adopt the atheistic perspective that would create another film about the inner repressions inside the Catholic Church, neither does she let herself follow the theological effusion. Fontaine keeps the distance that enables her to see more.
The existence of philosophical questions connects the film with the works of Dumont and Beavois much as film forms differentiate them (despite the fact that the chief of the camera crew was Caroline Champetier, who was also responsible for the cinematography of Of Gods and Men). Dramaturgy is here much more important than aesthetics as the director of Coco Chanel joins the story of the Polish nuns with the French doctor building the tension well and knowing where it should be lightened with humour.
Before the Polish premiere of The Innocents, the St. Benedict Order raised complaints that the French-Polish film distorts history, showing events that certainly did not occur in any Polish congregation of the St. Benedict Order. There are no reasons to disbelief them, though they prove that Fontaine’s story was misunderstood. The Innocents is not a historical document, nor does it try to evaluate any institution. There is no accusatory tone, which is present in many films about the Catholic Church, nor is there a black and white story about a diabolical supervisor and her suffering charges. Instead we see a lot of empathy and a will to really understand human actions.
In The Innocents the conflict between values is humanized. Thanks to its great acting, a story about the clash of ideas evolves into a fully-developed description of people in doubt seeking the meaning of life. Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Eliza Rycembel, and Lou de Laâge carry the film, but it stolen by Vincent Macaigne, who plays a Jewish doctor entangled in a romance with Mathilde. Despite the fact that he is present on the screen only for a few short periods of time, he manages to get the full attention of the viewers each and every time. However, his role does not change the fact that The Innocents is a story about faith seen from the perspective of women. The film is as subtle as courageous in asking hard, uncomfortable questions.
The Innocents, France, Poland 2016. Dir.: Anne Fontaine. Script: Anne Fontaine, Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Alice Vial. Cinematography: Caroline Champetier. Music: Grégoire Hetzel. Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Eliza Rycembel, Vincent Macaigne, Anna Próchniak, Joanna Kulig, Katarzyna Dąbrowska.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, March 2016, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski, March 2016Culture.pl