Mathilde Beaulieu’s faith will be challenged by the horrors she witnesses as a Red Cross doctor during WWII—her Communist faith. She was supposed to oversee the repatriation of French POW and concentration camp prisoners, but she also reluctantly started treating the nuns of convent repeatedly raped by the conquering Soviet Red Army. To do so, Beaulieau will risk more than her ideology in Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents.”
Beaulieu’s mission parameters are rigidly focused on French nationals, so she tries her best to turn away the distraught nun. Her Communist materialism also makes her instinctively antagonistic towards the Catholic Church. However, she ultimately relents, moved by the woman’s desperation and apparent piety. When she arrives at the convent she immediately understands why the sisters refused to seek help from the Russians or fellow Poles.
She finds one nun on the brink of delivery and many others in advanced stages of pregnancy. They were the spoils of war for our Russian allies, who raped them repeatedly during several visits. Fearful the future Soviet-dominated government will use the pregnancies to discredit the Church, the Mother Superior is desperate to keep their condition secret. The nuns’ vows of modesty also make routine examinations difficult. Yet, the nuns slowly start to trust Beaulieu, especially the worldlier Maria, who joined the order after having experienced a bit of secular life.
Based on the records of French Resistance and Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac (whose nephew Philippe Maynial developed the film’s original story), “Innocents” is an uncomfortably true episode of WWII history. Undoubtedly, some churlishly pedantic critics will object to the bestial depiction of the Red Army. Yet, the awkward truth is Stalin had largely purged anyone from the military who exhibited any signs of intelligence or talent by this time. All that were left were the brutish and the blindly loyal, so yes, the film portrays them with rigorous historical accuracy.
It will also be tempting for some to think of “The Innocents” as a prequel to the Oscar-winning “Ida,” especially since Agata Kulesza and Joanna Kulig appear in both films, albeit in radically different roles. While the latter was the standout as the notorious Communist hanging judge in Pawlikowski’s film, she has a harder time humanizing the rigid Mother Superior, which becomes somewhat problematic.
Regardless, French rising star Lou de Laâge is terrific anchoring the film as Beaulieu. She has a smart, forceful presence much greater than her slender size would suggest. She also forges some intriguing chemistry with the resilient Sister Maria, played with earnest grit by Agata Buzek. (We frequently defend the under-rated Jason Statham film “Redemption,” so it is worth noting that is where Fontaine first saw the accomplished Polish thespian.)
Fontaine also gets credit for vividly capturing the terrible sinking feeling a woman would get when pulled over by a Soviet patrol. Frankly, “The Innocents” is not likely to get much distribution in Putin’s Russia, but that attests to its honesty and artistic integrity.
In fact, the period details are all carefully realized and the large ensemble cast really knuckles down, seamlessly blending into this bleak, war-scarred environment.
Highly recommended, “The Innocents” opens this Friday, July 1, in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit jbspins.blogspot.com