IFI French Film Festival 2016 Review - THE INNOCENTS

In post WWII Poland, a French Red Cross worker secretly aids a group of nuns made pregnant by Russian soldiers.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Anne Fontaine

Starring: Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Joanna Kulig, Katarzyna Dabrowska

As a representation of a story previously untold, The Innocents offers enough surface material to hold your attention, but its refusal to get dirt under its fingernails renders it more frustrating than compelling.

Director Anne Fontaine is best known for light and frothy fare like the fashion industry biopic Coco Before Chanel and the Gemma Arterton vehicle Gemma Bovery. For her latest, she delves into a particularly dark and largely forgotten chapter of World War II, the rape of Polish women, in this case Catholic nuns, at the hands of the Russian soldiers who were entrusted to liberate them from the Nazis.

It's December 1945, and impossibly pretty French Red Cross worker Mathilde (Lou de Laage) is lured to a Polish convent by a distraught nun claiming a young woman they've given refuge to has gone into labour.

At the convent, Mathilde learns the true horror of the situation. The young mother is actually a nun, one of many who became pregnant following a series of rapes by a group of Russian soldiers who took over the convent on their arrival.

Mathilde vows to help see the nuns through their pregnancies, keeping it a secret from her employers at the Red Cross and the rest of the outside world. Should word get out of the nun's condition, the Catholic hierarchy would not look favourably upon them, despite no wrongdoing on their parts.

When a movie opens with the credit 'Poland, 1945', you know you're not in for a comedy, but Fontaine's treatment of this harrowing scenario, based on a true story, seems designed to cause as little discomfort for the audience as is possible from such dark material. It's handled in a manner so superficial it makes The Sound of Music look like Schindler's List.

Both Mathilde and the various nuns regularly break down in tears, but we never get a sense of the inner turmoil any of these characters would no doubt be dealing with. Early on we learn Mathilde is an idealistic communist, but the film fails to explore how her political views might cause conflict with the nuns in her care. Ostensibly the protagonist in a story that can't seem to decide on a central viewpoint, Mathilde is a thinly sketched figure with two emotional moods, radiant and teary.

As a representation of a story previously untold, The Innocents offers enough surface material to hold your attention, but its refusal to get dirt under its fingernails renders it more frustrating than compelling. 

The Innocents is in cinemas now.

discussion by