A Dark Story Brought to Light in “The Innocents”

In the early decades of cinema, Catholics called the shots in Hollywood. All films were submitted to the Catholic Legion of Decency for approval, and, if they didn’t meet the agency’s standards of morality, there would be a boycott, and 20 million American Catholics would stay home. We’ve come a long way since then. In the last decade alone, there has been a revolution in the way Catholicism is depicted onscreen.There were Oscar darlings Spotlight and Philomena, both of which addressed systemic darkness in the Church’s history, as did the terrific Irish indie Cavalry. You could even include the hugely successful Da Vinci Code franchise on this list, which, although it is fantastically fiction, reflects a more critical attitude towards a religious institution once deemed untouchable on film.

The Innocents, which addresses subjects as disturbing as rape and infanticide, ends up the tamest of the bunch. The Polish film tells the semi-true story of a particular convent, whose residents suffered a collective crisis of faith in the days after World War II. Our guide to the action is Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a French physician working with the Red Cross, who is summoned to the convent to secretly attend to a pregnant woman. There, she learns the awful truth: all of the nuns residing there have been raped by Soviet soldiers, and many are also pregnant. The mother superior is afraid of bringing shame and ridicule to their home, so Mathilde furtively tends to them, while the nuns grapple with a situation their spiritual training seems not to have prepared them for.

The Innocents succeeds when it stays inside the convent, where each resident reacts differently to their predicament. One giggles in delight from the buzz of their newfound maternity; another refuses to be physically examined let she willfully break her vow of chastity (to show their bodies or be touched is considered sinful). In these scenes, The Innocents wisely casts off the weight of history, zooming in on each of its characters to glimpse their humanity.

Beyond that, though, the film unfolds with a predictable sense of tragedy  Fans of Philomena will guess the big plot twist and what particular error in Catholic doctrine the film seeks to expose. Director/co-writer Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) opts for a classical composition and narrative, which creates a distance from the film’s horrors that is simultaneously pleasing and entirely wrong-headed. She seems to think the audience can’t relate enough to the nuns themselves, which is a mistake, so she uses Mathilde and her romantic escapades with her Jewish doctor friend, as an audience entry point. These scenes serve little narrative purpose, and it’s especially frustrating with all of the drama back at the convent that we’re itching to return to.

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This unfortunate detachment is exacerbated the film’s classical aesthetic. Each shot in The Innocents feels painstakingly composed, a singular work of art that justifies its own existence but does little further the story. The inside of the convent, the snowy woods outside, the orphan children congregating on the city streets; they all have metaphorical meaning but no narrative one. The dialogue, similarly, is flowery and musical but its poeticism a bit too perfect. “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope,” speaks one nun. That’s a line that should be engraved somewhere, not spoken in a film.

In the end, The Innocents draws attention to a forgotten, painful chapter of history, and that’s always a good thing. But it fails to truly explore its situation, instead merely restating its tragedy over and over before landing on an overly sunny finale that resolves too much too quickly, making this true-to-life story feel more like a fiction.

My Rating: Skip it Altogether

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