Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Innocents: A harrowing historical drama of nuns and war and secrets

The InnocentsLast year brought us the hauntingly beautiful film Ida, in which a young cloistered nun in 1960s Poland experiences a crisis of faith after learning her parents, whom she never knew, were actually Jewish. This year, we have yet another historical drama about Polish nuns with The Innocents. This poignant tale, based on a true story, follows a group of Benedictine sisters in 1945 Poland as they call upon a young doctor to help them deal with a horrible secret. It is a story that is undeniably heartrending and occasionally dark, but ultimately uplifting.

The film begins with Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) hearing cries of agony during her evening prayers. Stealthily, the nun slips into the night and trudges through the snow to a nearby village in search of a doctor, one she insists must not be Polish or Russian. After some impassioned pleas, a French Red Cross medic by the name of Mathilde (Lou De La├óge) agrees to accompany the sister back to the convent. There, Mathilde is dumbfounded to discover a young nun in the final stages of a difficult, potentially fatal labor. She manages to save both the mother and child, but immediately afterwards is set upon by the convent’s Mother Superior (Ida’s Agata Kulesza), who is furious that Sister Maria has allowed a stranger inside their consecrated walls. Mathilde is ordered never to return but. concerned for her new patient, she threatens to expose the incident if not allowed to care for the woman. Reluctantly, the Rev. Mother agrees, not just to let Mathilde come and go as needed, but to learn the truth behind what has transpired.

What Mathilde hears horrifies her. As the war began to wind down and the Germans were driven out of Poland, Soviet troops moved in to occupy the region. Coming upon the convent, the Russian soldiers forced their way in and repeatedly raped the nuns, leaving seven of them pregnant and traumatizing the rest. While not sharing the sister’s religious beliefs, Mathilde understands the shame and scandal that will ensue should the details of the situation get out. She agrees to secretly administer to the nuns until they all give birth, at which point the Mother Superior has promised to quietly have the children adopted.

What follows is an entirely involving tale as the women struggle to deal with not only the physical effects of the assaults, but with the psychological damage as well. In a welcome change of pace from the typical American star-vehicle, which would surely have concentrated on the ‘saintly’ doctor, the movie deftly introduces us to each of the nuns and lets us get to know them as individuals. This is most evident in a scene in which Mathilde convinces the Mother Superior to allow her to examine each of the pregnant nuns despite the fact that their vows typically would not allow their bodies to be touched. One takes the examination nonchalantly, one giggles hysterically, and one flees in terror, convinced she is condemned to Hell. In scenes like this, the film explores the many ways in which victims deal with such trauma.

Ultimately, though, The Innocents becomes a story of faiths tested, both religious and atheist. Between what they have already endured and a shockingly unexpected third-act betrayal that compounds the hurt, some of the sisters ultimately can’t reconcile their beliefs with what has happened to them. Most, however, amazingly find comfort in God. Mathilde is at first perplexed at the dichotomy of these women finding peace after such an ordeal, but as Sister Maria gently reminds her, behind all joy lies the cross, and faith can often feel like 24 hours of doubt with one minute of hope. In the end, God can bring good out of even the worst of situations. This is more than evident in the resolution of the film, one which some will no doubt criticize as being too neat and clean, but one which feels right just the same.

The Innocents is not a faith-based film per se. Like its main character, the movie approaches the subject matter as a secularist. But also like Mathilde, the film ultimately develops a respect for those who maintain faith in the face of the hardships the world has to offer, and admires them for it. So it seems we can now add The Innocents next to Ida as part of our growing collection of exquisitely made historical dramas about nuns in Poland. I’m not sure what kick started this particular trend, but considering the quality of films it’s given us so far, let’s hope it doesn’t stop any time soon.

David Ives