With Herculean effort, Lawrence reviews a very serious film about nuns without referencing ‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’.
If God exists, why does He allow suffering to exist? Is it acceptable in the eyes of God to commit a sin, if you think it helps others? If it helps them retain their faith? The Innocents (2016) or Les Innocentes, is a story about faith, the value of faith in the face of suffering, and particularly its value as a coping mechanism.
The year is 1945, the Second World War is over, and the Soviets are tightening their grip on Poland. Our protagonist is Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a student of the French Red Cross; she’s in Poland as part of a mission to aid survivors. A Benedictine nun speaking in broken French begs her to come out to her convent to help an ailing sister, while insisting on discretion. Quietly ushered inside, Mathilde finds herself performing a C-section by candlelight, and upon a subsequent follow-up discovers several other late-stage pregnancies among the sisters.
The nature of these pregnancies quickly becomes apparent; viewers familiar with the period will no doubt already have their suspicions. We are mercifully spared a demonstration, though there are a few unpleasantly close calls.
While this is a decidedly sombre film, there are some brief moments of levity, few and far between; and while there is an underlying bitterness, the ending is surprisingly optimistic, lest the movie slip into complete despair. Considering the supposed “based on real events” aspect of the story, one particular second-act revelation will likely leave the more suspicious viewers wishing that their hunch had been merely pessimism. However this is not a film that pulls punches.
The film’s camerawork is performed with subtlety and understatement. This seems only appropriate, as great and impressive displays of directorial prowess would only serve as a distraction; and would even seem gaudy, considering the heavy subject matter at work. What does come across nicely is the sensation of cold, as the story is set in December. Not unlike The Revenant (though not to the same extent), natural lighting is frequently used during scenes in and around the convent. The reflective snow provides a lot of that distinctive crisp white-grey-blue light. This is especially prevalent during scenes in the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza)’s office, a fitting ambience.
Ultimately; the dour nature, slow burn and dry presentation will dissuade some viewers, the need for subtitles will only compound this issue, but this is an excellently presented drama. Even though the language barrier, the strength of the writing and performances is evident, “Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope” says Agata Buzek as Sister Maria, who scores high marks. If you or someone you know enjoys a good misery-wallow every once in a while, this is an easy recommendation.