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Les Innocents

July 8, 2016
The Innocents

A Polish nun walks into the French Red Cross station in December of 1945, and finds a young doctor. She begs her to come back to the convent to help someone in distress, but she is turned away. Most of Poland is under Russian jurisdiction following the war; they only treat French casualties here; supplies are tight all around. With nowhere left to turn, the nun kneels in the snow and prays for guidance. The doctor sees her outside a window, and changes her mind.

The cloistered Benedictine sisters in Les Innocents, under the guidance of their Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), choose to rely on Providence, trusting that God will take care of things. Their response to the war has been to turn even more inwards, hoping that it would pass. But they were not able to escape the trauma that the rest of Poland endured in the war and its aftermath.

When she arrives, the worldly Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) finds one of the sisters in agonizing labor, her baby in breech position. Hers is only the first of many in the convent to come to term. Their condition is the result of a force of Red Army “liberators” raping the sisters, literally, along with the rest of the country, metaphorically, as they swept into the territory evacuated by the Germans.

Mathilde wants to provide full care for the sisters, but the Mother Superior insists on secrecy. If word got out, the convent might be shut down, eliminating what little stability the sisters had left. It seems shocking at first to think that the victims of such a horrible tragedy would bear the blame, but then look at how we treat rape survivors now. Is it any wonder someone might want to hide and hope it all blows over?

So Mathilde does what she can for the sisters, trying to work around their particular objections. She can’t get most of them to let her give a proper obstetric examination, which they fear would further violate their vows of chastity. She gets to know them — particularly Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who acts as a sort of liaison — and grows to appreciate the way they wrestle with their faith in the wake of trauma, even if she doesn’t agree with it. She seems to realize before the sisters do that the pressure of secrecy will be an additional strain, and that that some among them will be less able to bear it.

Most of the film takes place during the winter, which co-writer/director Anne Fontaine and cinematographer Caroline Champetier render in a cold near-monochrome. The sisters’ stark black-and-white habits don’t help matters any. It seems that all life in the forest is on hold until the spring comes with the promise of warmth and joy. In the middle of their winter, though, it’s easier to focus on the suffering buried inside any joy. And, with time, they can learn to reach out to each other for support, trusting that when they do, someone will be there to take their hand.

The convent’s response to its trauma offers a valuable lesson in how we deal with our own. Withdrawal can seem the safest approach, but it won’t lead to real healing. Divine providence comes, after all, through other people whose hearts are touched to change their minds and reach back when we ask for help.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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