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Movie Review: "The Innocents"

Still from "The Innocents," out July 8. 

Trigger Warning: This review includes mentions of sexual assault.

Set in the bleak winter after the end of World War II, “The Innocents” follows the story of Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a French Red Cross nurse treating survivors of concentration camps in Poland. When a panicked Benedictine nun begs her for help, Mathilde discovers a convent filled with pregnant holy sisters. As she is drawn further into the disturbing mystery surrounding the nuns, Mathilde fights to save their lives and their unborn children.

The tragedy that the nuns experienced is slowly revealed at the start of the film, and becomes heavier with the knowledge that it occurred in real life. Mathilde learns through veiled hints from the nuns that months earlier Soviet soldiers invaded the convent and repeatedly raped the women, leaving seven pregnant. It’s a piece of history that’s rarely discussed and often forgotten. During the liberation of Poland, mass acts of sexual violence were often committed by Soviet soldiers against Polish women. The story of Mathilde is loosely based on the true experiences of Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who assisted a group of nuns attacked by invading soldiers.

Faith plays a central role throughout the movie, as the nuns struggle with reconciling the trauma they have suffered and the religion in which they believe. While some nuns find that what little faith they had disappeared after the attacks, others grow closer to God. Yet all are affected by a pervasive sense of shame, a feeling that is almost encouraged by the overly devout Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza). In one striking scene, a nun is overwhelmed by her apparent sins and refuses to let Mathilde perform a checkup on her pregnancy, instead bursting into tears and pleading that she doesn’t “want to go to Hell.” The nuns’ trauma is portrayed with sensitivity, and the conflicting emotions they experience are both realistic and compelling to watch play out.

Mathilde prefers science to religion, smokes cigarettes, knocks back shots of vodka and carries on an affair with her supervisor throughout the movie. In stark contrast to Mathilde are the Benedictine nuns, who are bound by their vows of chastity and dedicated to a life of serving Christ. The nuns refer to life beyond the convent as “the outside world,” and live in near isolation in the middle of a forest. What little contact they have with villagers is cut off even more because of their fear and shame in their conditions. While Mathilde is dubious of the nuns’ way of life and struggles to understand their religion, she slowly grows closer to the nuns as she continues to aid them. Mathilde is selfless and loyal, prioritizing the safety of the nuns’ unborn children above even her duties with the Red Cross. When she cleverly saves the monastery from being searched by a group of soldiers, the nuns overwhelm her with their hugs, kisses and gratitude.

Despite dealing with a disturbing part of history, “The Innocents” never feels heavy-handed. The dark subject matter is lightened by characters like Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), the Jewish doctor who gently teases and supports Mathilde throughout the movie, and Irena (Joanna Kulig), a nun who giggles with and confides her lack of faith in Mathilde. There is beauty in the film, too - scenes filled with a cappella Latin hymns sung by the nuns, or showing tender moments between the new mothers and their children. Although loose ends are almost too perfectly pulled together at the end, “The Innocents” is overall a strong film, providing a layered and moving portrayal of a harsh piece of history.

Rating: A

“The Innocents” opens Friday, July 8 at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.


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