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Film Review

The Innocents

Films that look critically at religion are rare, good films that do so are rarer still. A recent example is Ida (2014), set in Poland, about a young novice trying to decide whether to become a nun and enter a strict convent. Surprisingly, a year later a related film has just opened: The Innocents, also set in Poland.

With one of the sadder histories of European countries, Poland finally gained independence after WW I only to lose it again two decades later when Germany and the Soviet Union seized and split the country under a secret agreement. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, including the Russian-held portion of Poland. The country suffered grievously under the Germans. The large Jewish population was virtually exterminated and millions of non-Jewish Poles were murdered or starved to death. When it was finally liberated from Nazi control in 1945 by the Soviet Army, the country was in ruins and reconstruction made more difficult by earlier Soviet killings of Polish intellectuals, teachers, and political leaders in the Katyn Forest. A few years later the Communists took control and Poland remained in the Soviet bloc until the government, under great pressure from massive worker strikes, collapsed in 1989 and Poland became free. The Catholic Church, which had been severely persecuted and repressed under the Soviets, played an important part in the resistance to Communism.

Anne Fontaine, a French screenwriter and director, is best known in this country for her Coco Before Chanel (2009) and Gemma Bovary (2014), but has actually directed 15 films over the past 20 years. Typically her films emphasize character over story line. Fontaine's latest film, The Innocents, looks at a convent in rural Poland immediately after the Second World War. Not far away a French-staffed Red Cross team is treating the last of the wounded. The doctors include Mathilde, who is young but capable and determined. Her initially mysterious superior turns out to have his own sad story. The film opens with the sound of boots on stone. What we presume to be a military unit turns out to be a covey of traditionally robed nuns trooping to prayer in a handsome stone building. Their lovely hymns are suddenly interrupted by a scream of pain from off screen. Then we see a nun slip unnoticed out a side door.

From the isolated convent she treks through a snowy forest before reaching the Red Cross temporary hospital, where she begs the doctors for help without specifying what the emergency is. The doctors tell her that she needs to go to a Polish hospital because they cannot travel to the convent. But Mathilde, touched and intrigued at the sight of the nun praying in the snow, takes one of the hospital's ambulances with the nun giving directions. They arrive at the convent and Mathilde discovers that a nun is in a difficult labor. Russian troops had forced their way into the convent and raped a number of the nuns. Mathilde delivers the child but it soon becomes clear that there are other pregnant nuns close to delivery. The conservative Abbess is conflicted and not welcoming but relents when it becomes clear that choices are few. The story continues toward a surprising, albeit too convenient ending.

The acting is exceptional here, all by Polish and French actors. Coincidentally, the Abbess is played by Agata Kulesza, who also starred as the aunt in Ida. What we are shown are the widely differing ways the nuns react to their plight. For some it shakes their faith in God; for others it serves as punishment. Those who were worldly before taking their vows seem to deal with it better. The real star here is the cinematography. Most of the scenes have a great beauty to them; a visual austerity that seems almost organically part of a convent in winter. There is so little color that many of the scenes seem almost to have been shot in black and white. Other scenes strongly resemble Vermeer paintings, especially those with women illuminated by a window. The music, both the religious and secular, is absolutely in tune with the story. Fontaine has produced a morally complex film that confronts the age old questions: If there is a God, why does he let the innocent suffer? How can faith in God as a loving parent be reconciled with the injustice and cruelty in the world? And who can judge a sin committed to prevent a greater evil? Who should decide which is the greater evil? Fontaine also has much to say about the solidarity of women. The original title of The Innocents was Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), which seems to me a better fit. I was very moved by this beautifully crafted film, which uses historical events to ask important questions. Running time: 115 minutes. Just opened at the Clay and the Raphael Film Center.

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