Films based on true events are often met with a mixed response; audience left to question the validity of the liberties its filmmakers have taken. Though it can render some films as potentially predictable or even unbelievable, others can be inspiring and heart-wrenching. In the case of The Innocents, we find cinema that belongs to the latter camp; quietly powerful, thanks to a subtle approach to storytelling and assured direction.
Set in Poland in December 1945 after World War II, the film opens in a church, where Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) sneaks out to find someone who can tend to the needs of the convent; someone other than a Russian. She finds a French Red Cross doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laage) and she tends to the nuns, who are discreetly pregnant.
Here she uncovers some dark secrets that have to power to destroy the very foundation that the church is built on. And with the support of the nuns, Mathilde brings it upon herself to help the nuns and their newborns while balancing her work with the French Red Cross – all the while evading Soviet soldiers.
Not to provide spoilers, but the story is incredibly tough going. One of the things that is refreshing about The Innocents is that unlike other films of its type where the backdrop would usually be set during the war; in The Innocents, the story is set in the aftermath of the war, and its consequences.
Another refreshing thing about The Innocents is that it is told from the point-of-view of a female character. Rarely do we see stories of war and how it impacts females dealt with such conviction and depth. Director Anne Fontaine applies nuance and sensitivity to the story, making the film eerie, poignant and shocking, without resulting into scare tactics, nationalism and hopelessly tugging the heartstrings. And in doing so, the story becomes a lot more humane, which makes it a lot easier for the audience to immerse themselves.
Characterizations and development are also stellar. Told in the point-of-view of Mathilde, her character is a non-believer of faith and religion, but eventually she opens up to the beliefs the nuns hold dear. When she embraces the times that a shining light beams through, it becomes extremely rewarding. Every positive that Mathilde earns or feels is guaranteed to affect the audience in a way that feels rightfully earned.
It also applies to the nuns themselves. They all seem like ciphers at first, both in look and personality. But throughout the course of the film, as the revelations are revealed, we notice how distinct they really are. One of them reacts with extreme guilt, another is in complete denial, while another chooses to deal with it extensively. But one thing is for certain: their faith is no longer ironclad.
There’s even a scene in the film where one of the nuns questions their faith by asking whether God let their troubles happen to them. Although the theme of religious belief may irk some, Fontaine again, examines it with nuance that it never comes across as judgmental and somehow becomes a mark of change in character.
The production values certainly hold up by their end of the bargain. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier is hauntingly sterile (a simple shot of a nun running up a hill and through a forest will linger) while the musical score by Gregoire Hetzel is effective in conveying mood and tension, even when sparingly used.
And the actors are wonderful. Lou de Laage, who has been fantastic in films like Respire and The Wait, delivers top work as Mathilde, as she conveys her character progression convincingly. Agata Buzek (who plays another nun after the Jason Statham drama, Hummingbird) delivers with conviction as Sister Maria and she shares a nice, understated chemistry with de Laage, as the two bond over their differences in life.
Agata Kulesza (who was in Ida, another film involving nuns) is great as Mother Superior, as she balances both her faith and care for her sisters and the conflicts that she experiences. And Vincent Macaigne delivers a strong performance as Samuel, a fellow doctor with Mathilde who happens to be Jewish. He provides some much-needed levity to the film, offering some relief from the grim nature of the story.
As for flaws, the ending is a little too neat given the events that happened prior and the pacing can be quite glacial at times, but the film is so well-executed in every other regard, any flaws become quite easy to ignore.
As a war film, The Innocents may be quite a harrowing experience, but the subtle, sensitive storytelling, the assured direction by Anne Fontaine, the complimentary production values and the fantastic performances ensure that The Innocents is a film is worth the effort.
The fact that this is a war film made by women and it is about women is remarkable and that alone makes it a must-see.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Innocents is in cinemas now.