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The Innocents

"The Innocents": the tragedy of the war in a convent

By Manon Variol

Some consequences of the World War have been ignored for a long time. The Innocents is the story of one of them. Anne Fontaine’s latest film immerses us in a Polish convent after the war, where nuns have been affected by violent events and are trying to recover. On British screens on 11 November 2016.

Imagine yourself in the cold Poland of winter 1945. The war is over but the trauma is still very strong. Mathilde Beaulieu, a Red Cross doctor, is taking care of the French wounded in combat. A young Benedictine sister comes to her asking for help but Mathilde kicks her out claiming: “only French people here”. However, she changes her mind when she sees the girl praying in the snow. She follows her through the Polish countryside to reach the convent, where 25 nuns are hiding. She then has to face an incredible situation: most of the nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers. Seven are pregnant and about to go into labour.

No one can know the nuns' secret
No one can know the nuns' secret

This situation must be kept secret. There is no way that their family or the villagers can discover what happened, as the Mother Superior wants to protect the nuns’ dignity. Some Benedictines sisters accept their fate and want to raise their children whereas others refuse to face up reality. Mathilde must even deal with a denial of pregnancy.

This incredible story is based on real events. The director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) has read Madeleine Pauliac’s diary, a doctor who has really witnessed this struggle between faith and the lost of hope. 

How can you move on when you have lived a tragedy which has trampled your principles? Will the sisters keep faith despite their broken vow of chastity?

To respect the reality of conventual life, Anne Fontaine has lived with Benedictines for some time and received advice from a Mother Superior and Jean-Pierre Longeat, the President of the Conference of the Religious of France. The film was shot in an abandoned monastery in Poland and was very well received in the Vatican.

Lou de Laâge as Mathilde Beaulieu
Lou de Laâge as Mathilde Beaulieu

Lou de Laâge is convincing for her first leading role as an adult character, as a doctor torn between professional secrecy and her will to help others. Surgeons and medics taught the actress the good gesture before the shooting. Despite Lou de Laâge’s sweet face, you can guess the strong character of this young woman who must deal with the ravages of war.

Thanks to Caroline Champetier’s cinematography, the film looks like a master painting. The sober background emphasises the nuns’ pale and angelic faces. There is no bright colour on screen as if Anne Fontaine wanted to stress the gravity of the situation, which sometimes becomes oppressive. The music is almost non-existent, except for the nuns’ songs and piano.

Anne Fontaine’s film is an art piece which reveals secrets on how the nuns were affected by the Second World War and how they struggle with the feeling of being left alone by God. However, the audience has a glimmer of hope for the Benedictines sisters who receive an unexpected help.


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