Movie Review: The Innocents (2016)
It’s December 1945, and Mathilde Beaulieu (future international star Lou de Laage) is an intern with the French Red Cross in Poland, helping identify, treat and repatriate French citizens in Nazi camps. One day, a young Polish nun asks for help; Mathilde directs her to the Polish or Soviet authorities then goes about her day. At the end of it, as she’s smoking a cigarette, she looks outside and sees the same nun praying in the snow.
At the convent, she arrives to find a nun in pain—giving birth to a breech baby—and she does what she does. Then she discovers other nuns are pregnant. Six? Eight? Is it a miracle? The opposite. Backdate eight months and it’s when the Soviet Army came through. These are women who hardly know their own bodies, whose bodies, they feel, belong to God. Some of them won’t even let Mathilde examine them for the shame of it all. And Russians soldiers were at the convent for three days. That’s the first horrific revelation.
Mathilde is sworn to secrecy in all of this. The Mother Superior, Mere Abesse (Agata Kulesza, who played the freewheeling, self-destructive aunt in “Ida”), has found homes for the babies but it’s all hush-hush. They’re under Soviet occupation now; they’re Catholics in a communist world. Plus 1945 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time for victims of rape.
Gradually, Mathilde develops friendships with the nuns, particularly Maria (Agata Buzek), who is younger and more open than the Mother Superior. Mathilde has her own run-in with Soviet troops in the woods at night, and barely escapes. When Polish troops come through, she scatters them with talk of disease and becomes a hero to the nuns—a sweet scene.
Her superiors, meanwhile, wonder what’s up—she’s falling asleep on the job. A Jewish doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), woos her with such blunt, dead-eyed hopelessness we worry for her, but he turns out to be a fascinating character with some wit. “Yes, a Jew,” he says, evenly, at one point. “There are still a few of us left.” He loves though the light in his eyes has gone out.
The film itself is so dimly lit that for a time I wondered if the projector at SIFF Uptown was missing a bulb. Was it all natural lighting? Was Fontaine going for the look of classic paintings? The palette reminded me of “Les raboteurs de parquet” by Gustave Caillebotte. It's the look of the first winter after our most horrific war.
I won’t go into the second horrific revelation but will add that I didn’t see the solution to the problem even though it was right in front of me the entire time. I like that. I like the feel of the film and its ending notes.