The Innocents (2016) Film Review from the 59th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, a movie directed by Anne Fontaine, and starring Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, and Joanna Kulig.
With the officially secular societies of the Western world struggling to figure out how to address extremism motivated in part by religion, believers and nonbelievers find themselves taking part in heated debates over whether faith is a force for good or ill. Regardless of which side one comes on in this debate, it is safe to say that both have contributed to an uncivil environment in which the motives of those with differing views are assumed to be suspect, preventing cooperation and dialogue on other pressing issues. This heavily-polarized conflict is subtly tackled in Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, which uses a straightforward story to examine the advantages and shortcomings of both religion and skepticism.
When Mathilde Beaulieu (de Laage), a young Red Cross volunteer who, being a good Communist, regarded religion as nothing more than the opiate of the masses, first arrived in Soviet-occupied Poland, she likely had no idea she would end up fraternizing with the local clergy. It’s even less likely she imagined she would end up help deliver babies in a convent full of impregnated nuns. But that’s exactly what happens Sister Maria (Buzek) approaches her and begs for her medical expertise. The nuns, having been raped en masse by the victorious Russians, are now with child, and mortified that the church will cast them aside for this grave “dishonor.” Formally requesting a doctor is out of the question, so Maria can only pray that the freethinking French Red Cross worker – to say nothing of the conservative-minded Mother Superior (Kulesza) – can overlook their vast differences in belief and lifestyle to recognize their common humanity.
This is no easy task for either party, who as both come from worlds and surroundings that dismiss the other’s perspective as immoral or backward. Mathilde’s male companion, Samuel Lehmann (Macaigne), detests the Poles he is charged with treating, expressing pleasure when she mentions rumors that the Russians are planning to treat the Catholic church much more harshly than the Germans ever did. Mother Superior, on the other hand, is absolutely incredulous when she learns that Maria has asked Mathilde to bring the Jewish Samuel to the convent to help deliver more infants, conveying her distrust through nothing more than a stone-cold death stare. But as Samuel points out, they have no choice: whether the characters agree on whether there is a world after this one or not, they have to work together to make sure everything works out in the one they’re still in.
It’s a simple message realized through simple means, but the film moves at such a pace that it never feels like it’s lost it’s steam. Enough obstacles, in the form of bickering between Maria, Mathilde and the other nuns as well as occasional harassment from Soviet soldiers, are thrown our way so it doesn’t descend into one nun giving birth after another. The relationship between Maria and Mother Superior in particular remains compelling and fresh up until the moral grayness of their situation becomes too much for Mother, who resorts to a very dark act to maintain the purity of her nuns. Viewers would be well-advised to pay heed to The Innocents‘ balanced take on faith.
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