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Weighing evil in the wake of nuns' war terror

Tim Kroenert |  16 May 2017


The Innocents (M). Director: Anne Fontaine. Starring: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza. 115 minutes

'Faith is 24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope.' If that sounds like a grim assessment of religious belief from someone who has dedicated her life to it, you can understand it when that person lives amid the ongoing consequences of the direst of human evil; who must weigh such evil against her dedication to a God who by his nature is all-powerful and all-loving.

The words are spoken by Sister Maria (Buzek), lieutenant to a strict Mother Superior (Kulesza) at a rural convent in Poland in 1945. The time and place indicate the kinds of horrors the nuns cloistered therein might have witnessed, but not their specifics. When we first meet them their faces and manner are grim indeed, even in the midst of prayer and song.

Nun walks through snowy woods in The InnocentsThe gloomy reverie is broken by screams from a distant room. One of the sisters breaks ranks and journeys by foot to a nearby compound of the French Red Cross, and returns with a young doctor, Mathilde (de Laâge), an avowed atheist, who finds herself enlisted to help a young woman give birth. Mathilde discovers that at least five other nuns at the convent are heavily pregnant.


"Mother Superior comports herself with dour and legalistic devotion to their shared religious life, and with invocations to God's Providence. These might seem merely inadequate, if not for the horrific lengths to which she goes."


Soon Mathilde learns the details of the predicament: of the terror wrought at the convent by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. Over the coming weeks, she oversees the health of those who fell pregnant during the intrusion. Gradually she wins their trust and, in the process, has her mind opened to a brand of faith that, in such circumstances, can be anything but blind, or easy.

Director Fontaine's The Innocents unfolds with a sober detachment, which only enhances the quiet horrors that stalk the characters' recent history and excruciating present. Her cinematographer Caroline Champetier opens up space amid the convent's walls and the surrounding frosted countryside for characters' actions to be sorted and weighed by the viewer.

The women respond variously to the children they bear, from outright rejection to violent grief at the prospect of separation. In the face of this, Mother Superior comports herself with dour and legalistic devotion to their shared religious life, and with invocations to God's Providence. These might seem merely inadequate, if not for the horrific lengths to which she goes in her dedication to them.

Her manner is contrasted with that of Maria and Mathilde, whose active compassion for the mothers and their offspring meets immediate human need in a more practical and, ultimately, more pastoral fashion.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street. This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican.



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Submitted comments

You've got me convinced that this is a must watch movie. I find it so difficult to find words to describe what I feel when I hear of rape, let alone war rape en masse, let alone the rape of nuns...not that one rape is better or worse than another. And then there are the children that result and the women who have to deal with this - the male rapist never has to. Wartime rape is such a bestial way of subjugating the conquered, so animalistic, so barbaric, so devolved. I hate these men and their regimes, but it is almost understandable because they have come from a political system that has first dehumanised them so much as well. I was told by a man who was a little boy in Berlin at the time of the USSR invasion there...the same thing. The most brutish men were sent ahead to rape as many women and children as they could, and deal with the men as well. He witnessed his mother and sister being raped as he hid. What is really devastating for him was that not many years later, a priest tried to rape him. How does one deal with this...but they do, with faith and forgiveness, if someone is willing to hear them.

Stephen de Weger 18 May 2017

This film's difficult premises will leave audiences deeply engaged, I would say. After reading this review, I'm thinking about what it means to be strictly faithful and about what shockingly intense evil can wreak. And the strength of human goodness.

Pam 18 May 2017

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