World War II Nun Drama ‘The Innocents’ Is Hard to Read

The-Innocents

Perhaps it’s a function of the world we live in, but when a movie combines nuns, unintended pregnancy and an unbelieving female doctor “who became their only hope,” the thought of abortion leaps immediately to mind.

But, having read a few reviews of director Ann Fontaine’s “The Innocents” — originally released as “Agnus Dei” — it’s hard to tell whether that’s an accurate assumption.

Featured at the recent Sundance Film Festival, the movie is inspired by the real-life exploits of French Red Cross Dr. Madeleine Pauliac, who’s fictionalized in the film as a doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Laage).

This is the official description:

Poland, December 1945: Mathilde (Lou de Laâge, ‘Breathe’) is a young French Red Cross doctor based in Warsaw when a nun seeks her help. She is brought to a cloistered Benedictine convent where she discovers a young novice in labor. It soon becomes clear that the entire order has been profoundly traumatized and several other nuns are pregnant from a series of brutal sexual assaults by the Red Army. Needing medical assistance and fearing the shame of exposure and the hostility of the newly installed Communist government, the nuns – their faith challenged – turn to Mathilde, a non-believer, who becomes their only hope.

Here are some excerpts from Variety‘s Sundance review, which notes that the strict Rev. Mother (Agata Kulesza) apparently wants Mathilde to offer the nuns medical care and deliver the babies, which will then be offered up for adoption:

Indeed, the corrosive nature of shame — particularly in a situation where it is entirely undeserved — is one of the key themes of Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial’s layered screenplay, which takes its time exploring an impossible situation from every possible moral, spiritual and institutional angle. In the process, the sisters — despite wearing identical habits and seeming to radiate the same stiff severity — emerge as individuals with their own unique feelings, convictions, personal histories and varying degrees of faith. One giggles reflexively when Mathilde tries to examine her; another cowers in fear, convinced that there lies the way of damnation. Still another declares that what happened to the convent has destroyed her belief in God forever, only to rediscover it under the most unexpected of circumstances.

Stubborn, judgmental and short-sighted though she may be, the elder nun is clearly aware that a public scandal of this magnitude would destroy what little respect or authority the Church still commands, making “Agnus Dei” very much a movie about the weakening grip of religious institutions in turbulent times and amid changing regimes.

All the more remarkable, then, that Fontaine’s film manages to respect faith even though it refuses to partake of it, and its dramatic progress is often defined by the push-pull of its characters’ opposing worldviews.

Music Box Films will release the film in the U.S. sometime in July.

Image: Courtesy PFI

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