World War Two may have ended on September 1945, but for many of its survivors, this was only the start of their hardship. Anne Fontaine’s The Inncoents takes us to Warsaw, Poland, where fields of snow are still marked by the blood of struggle. German troops have been driven out by the Soviets, and French doctors have been drafted in to recover their wounded troops. Among them is Mathilde (Lou de Laâge, a dead ringer for Lea Seydoux), who is, one day, approached by a nun asking for help. “Sick woman… Polish,” she says, to which Mathilde dismisses her, saying, “Only French here.” The nun remains, praying in the snow outside. Mathilde is so moved by this sight that she decides to visit the nunnery, which has been beset by a plague of pregnancies; the by-product of invasions by male Soviet troops, emboldened by the sinful atmosphere of war.
At once dour and accessible, The Innocents takes a thoughtful look at what it means to be a woman in conflict. It’s based on a true story, which lends credence to its bold narrative – Mathilde takes to sneaking away from her duty as a surgical assistant to treat the women, many of whom are reluctant to let her near their violated bodies. This includes Mother Abesse (Agata Kulesza), the leader of the convent, who isn’t too happy with letting an independent, politically active woman into their guarded community. While Mathilde inspires the other nuns to think for themselves, they come to learn that, in some cases, innocence is bliss.
Caroline Champetier’s photography brings the cold, beautiful landscapes of Poland to life, as well as the dusty interiors of the nunnery, where corridors echo with the sound of distant hymns. Performances are fine across the board, and Fontaine has a good grasp on tone – at least for a while. The movie is different to Pawel Pawlikowski’s admittedly superior Ida, in that it offers more hope than austerity; Mathilde’s on-off relationship with fellow doctor Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) provides much-needed moments of humour, and the film’s nuns are invested with nicely varied degrees of humanity and victimhood. Though it should be said that the ending is misjudged: the feature offers a clean, idyllic resolution to a conflict that was nothing of the sort. Otherwise, this is a moving exploration of faith, femininity, the cost of war and the conditions of human empathy.
The Innocents is released in selected cinemas on 11th November 2016.
Watch the trailer for The Innocents here: