World War II was not kind to the sovereign nation of Poland. In September 1939, Poland was invaded on both sides — first by the Nazis on September 1 and then by the Soviets on the 17th — effectively tearing the country in half. Polish citizens lived under constant terror, captivity and persecution and by the end of the war, roughly 6 million Poles had died — approximately 1/5 of the pre-war population — but things did not improve. The defeat of the Nazis meant the triumph of the Soviets; Poland was no better off.
This transfer of power and the persecution that came with has been well documented in Polish cinema but the newly released Polish-French co-production, The Innocents, from director Anne Fontaine is a focused look at life lived under the thumb. And not simply of political persecution, but also the shame and guilt that comes with occupation.
The Innocents opens with a young French Red Cross volunteer, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who has been tasked with helping the survivors of the Warsaw camps. A local nun, Maria (Agata Buzek), begs for Mathilde’s help but refuses to bring the sick patient to the clinic. Mathilde must visit the abbey and only after-hours. When Mathilde arrives, she finds the patient, a nun, who is not sick but about to give birth. The child is breeched and Mathilde must improvise a cesarean section. She does and the child’s life is saved.
The sight of a pregnant nun is an unusual one and Mathilde returns to the abbey to check up on the mother only to be turned away by both the nun, who refuses to be touched, and the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), who wants nothing of this. Sister Maria explains: the women of the abbey have all be raped and abused by Soviet soldiers and the nuns have done their best to keep outside suspicions squashed. As soon as a child is born, it is immediately surrendered to the Mother Superior who gives it up for adoption. A strict code of silence is enforced, one that is helped by the guilt these poor women feel. Not to mention the eternal damnation they all fear. “Can’t we set God aside while I examine them?” Mathilde asks. “You don’t set God aside,” Sister Maria responds.
Thanks to Fontaine’s formalist restraint, The Innocents is an opaque movie; one stripped free of adornment and bleached of color. Whites, pale blues and blacks populate the world of the abbey while Mathilde’s military-brown uniform positively pops off the screen. There is no doubt that she is the outsider in an insular world.
Screenwriters Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial and Philippe Maynial draw their story from the real-life account of Madeleine Pauliac who, at the age of 27, was appointed Chief Doctor of the French Hospital in Warsaw where she discovered the horrific amount of rape that had been perpetrated by the Russians, both in and out of the convents. Fontaine uses this historical event to explore the ugly underbelly of occupation and the guilt accompanied. These women are victims, yet the very place that they seek solace from furthers this notion of guilt. Once these babies are born, Mother Superior whisks them away from the abbey with an out of sight, out of mind mentality. This does nothing but further the pain these women feel.
Who then is the innocent of the title? The women are all victims and guilty of no crime, yet as information comes to light, not all are as innocent as they would like. No, the innocent here are the children. Though their inception may be of ugly circumstances, they are guilty of no crime and can only be a source of something wonderful — an echo of “The Miracle” segment of Roberto Rossellini’s L’Amour (1948). One of the nuns realizes that and it leads her to an important decision, which lends The Innocents a happy-ish ending. That ending is not a tacked on Hollywood one, but merely a shift in perspective. The world may be ugly, but there are ways to live in it that give us hope. You just have to accept them when they come knocking.