“The Innocents”

Seventy years ago, my mother was 23 years old and engaged to be married. Somehow this gives me perspective as I review the French film ” The Innocents”.  Fast set to 1945 Warsaw, Poland.  Women of her faith and age are in crisis, and shame is a major theme.

Shame is an emotion of negative self-assessment.  It is painful and leaves one feeling passive and impotent. The Polish nuns of  this true story have been abused by the Germans, but actually raped by a company of Russian soldiers. These soldiers have visited the nunnery  at least three times and have left  many pregnancies in their wake.

I am not shame-prone, so part of this film is difficult for me to understand. How can virginal women feel such shame for something that was done to them ?  The vows af chastity seem to give rise to mental health issues. Not allowing oneself to be examined by a doctor and suffering the  lesions  of advanced syphillis seems so extreme.   Yet, it we take Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ( 1906-1945) reflection on shame as the “disunion from God”, we can understand the inner torment this film’s women of God suffer.

“The Innocents” is an art film so restrained that it will not be for everyone. The cinematography of Caroline Champetier is itself like a treatise on faith rituals. The feet of Jesus on the cross are kissed, the halos of light show auras encapsuled around the sister’s habits, and evening prayer lauds the passage of time. When Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) confesses that she can not reconcile her faith with the horrific events that have occurred, her companion merely says, “Let’s kneel, Sister.”

Director Anne Fontaine is sympathetic toward ascetic life. Women take care of women, and events are shown from every angle. Sister Maria shares her history and her former dress with Mathilde Beaulieu, a French physician. ” I liked men, and men liked me”. As a Benedictine nun, she is happy. “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt , and one minute of hope.”

Lou de Laage plays real-life Madelaine Pauliac, the doctor sought out by a novice who fears there will be more deaths if medical help is not available. De Laage ‘s face is beautiful as she shows the French Red Cross doctor, now named Mathilde, becoming a trusted advocate in the nunnery.  As a non-believer and a Communist, she suggests ” putting God aside” for their own self-regard. She is told the God can never be put aside. Originally, “The Innocents” was titled ” Agnus Dei”.  Lambs to slaughter imagery still is apparent. One nun jumps in a  suicide to end her pain. Disorder and scandal and fear are all cloaked in shame.

A Jewish doctor ( Vincent Macaigne) plays Samuel. He is Mathilde’s sounding board. She asks him how he thinks the new regime will treat the Church. His parents have died in the camps. He responds bitterly with “the only Poles I liked were in the Warsaw Ghetto.” ” If someone told me I would be helping Polish nuns knocked up by Russian grunts…” He is Mathilde’s lover and supporter. He praises her willingness to help though she has been reprimanded by her superior not to leave the French sector. Sam tells her that ” even a more qualified person would have panicked.” Mathilde does not share her own close call with Russian rapists. Some of my favorite lines are his, ” Fear not, I am here to help you. There are a few of us left.” “Keep your secrets: I am going to dance.”

Sound is used to divide scenes. The nuns’ chanting, like a Greek chorus, becomes a reflective break on the passage of events. Sound imagery brings the cold crunch of snow, the orphans’ kick of the can, and the screams to the screen and into our own psyches. The absence of sound causes us to appreciate the light and the arches and the secrets of this place while the music  selected by Gregoire Hetzel beautifully supports the film.

A vow of silence is used as punishment for a novice who has sought help. ” Providence will provide” is contorted to horrific effect. A baby girl is laid in a basket and set on the snowy ground in front of a cemetery cross~baptized, but left to freeze. Mother Abbess ( Agata Kulesza, who played the Jewish aunt in “Ida”) says she has sacrificed her own soul for the other nuns. This to me is the most problematic part of the film. Is she addled by syphillis ?

One  nun tells Mathilde, ” God sent you even if it makes you laugh”. There is nothing to laugh at or even smile at in this film until the end. A photograph of nuns holding smiling  babies on their laps does a little in showing how religion can elevate shame rather than exacerbate it. Good works seem to be the message. Scriptwriters Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina Karine, Alice Vial and Fontaine, herself, have given us a film classic of rage turned against self, a psychological study of the complexity of shame.