The Innocents, (Les Innocentes) a film by Anne Fontaine (who also brought us Coco Before Chanel) is based on true events. It is set at the end of World War II: a young French doctor, Mathilde Beaulieu (luminously played by Lou de Laâge) is working at the French Red Cross in Poland rescuing French citizens when she gets embroiled in events in a local Polish convent. The year before, Russian soldiers entered the convent and assaulted the nuns, resulting in some of the nuns becoming pregnant. As the film starts, one young nun cannot bear the birthing pains of one of her friends; she runs to the Red Cross station and begs the young French doctor to help her.
The film is about Mathilde's relationship with the nuns and their reactions to what has happened to them in the light of their faith. Most of these young nuns came to the convent, willingly or coerced by their families, as virgins and they have no experiences to compare this event to. They had given their lives to God – why has God allowed this to happen? The reactions of the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) and her second-in-command Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) are strikingly different. Sister Maria strikes up a friendship with Dr. Mathilde, recognising someone who can help the young nuns. She has had a slightly more worldly past too, we gather. Mother Superior, however, only accepts Mathilde's help very grudgingly: her concern is that the scandal will close the convent down and her method of preventing scandal is cruel and shocking. It is the doctor not the rigid Mother Superior who comes up with a humane solution. The acting of these three main actors, all unknown to me, was utterly convincing.
Mathilde Beaulieu is based on the real life doctor Madeleine Pauliac: after working for the French Resistance and then the liberation of Paris, Madeleine Pauliac did indeed work for the French Red Cross in Poland at the end of the war. Tragically she died in a car accident in 1946 and National Order of Legion d'Honneur had to be awarded posthumously. The film is based on an idea suggested by her nephew. In the film Mathilde is a silent observer of people much of the time: she is no innocent herself but she has a quiet strength and resilience – as well as great humanity. The bare, cold convent and the somewhat sterile life the nuns lead surrounded by a gloomy snow-clad forest contrasts strikingly with the warmth of the doctor and some of the nuns, Sister Maria especially, and with the arrival of new life.
This deeply moving film is beautifully shot and depicts the damage done by war on innocent people.