The Innocents : A Film Review


The Innocents

Directed by Anne Fontaine, Produced by Éric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer, Philippe Carcassonne.  Written by Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine, Alice Vial. Based on an original concept by Philippe Maynial.  Cast.  Lou de Laâge, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Vincent Macaigne.  Music by Grégoire Hetzel.  Cinematography Caroline Champetier. Edited by Annette Dutertre. Production company, Aeroplan Film, France 2 Cinéma, Mandarin Cinéma, Mars Films, Scope Pictures.   In French, Polish and Russian with English subtitles. Cert. 15. Duration: 1 hour, 55 minutes. 

 Polish Immediate Post-War Recovery

From the same era and almost same territory as the highly rated, superb Ida comes another overwhelmingly harrowing war story. This is a Franco-Polish tale of founding of new live’s, of Mother and child which is based on a true story set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  The principals include the French Red Cross Nurse, Mathilde Beaulieu, (Lou De Laâge) tending soldiers injured at the local hospital who is asked by a Nun, who has found her after trekking through a forest from her Convent to the Village nearby.  The Nun seeks her help and her task is to tend to a Nun at the Convent and in secrecy. Having persuaded her, in a visionary way they set off in her Red Cross Twnsporter back to the Convent were the actual scenario quickly becomes established.  The Nun has been a victim of retreating Russians who left their calling cards.  As told to the Nurse she is first inclined to report it to the authorities – Polish and Russians still in joint occupancy – but the Mother Superior (Ida actor Agata Kulesza, the Judge and Aunt who drove Ida back to her roots) of the Benedictine Convent has to relent as here could be more suffering. Through the French speaking Nun named Maria (Agata Buzek) acting as translator and the closed order has a newcomer and this is where the story starts to unfold.  It is a case of dealing with new life in each and putting away thoughts, however ludicrous to outsiders, of shame.  So the the characters set before us initially; more or the order become involved, are three Nuns.  The Abbess who rules with a fierce discipline, Novice Nun Maria who is a focal interpreter of both language and emotions, then the Novice Nun Zofia who has been victimized by the Russians.  To see this trio as the holy trinity is an elastic take but one is the fundamentalist, one is the mediator, one is the innocent victim.  Mathilde is the fulcrum of the outside unknown world the order are enclosed from.  They have also to pass through to the next phase when the novices adopt the order in its fullest sense.  So we are on the cusp of desparate problems and challenges for all.

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Mirrored worlds old and present.

The layers are twin emotional opposites but mirrors.  The Order of Nuns obviously regard themselves wedded to Christ and there has been a violation of the most personal kind with as a consequence, the horror of confronting the thought God has permitted this to happen.  Novice Nun Zofia is he first to be traumatised in the act of childbirth.  Her rape has been supressed within her and now this revisiting is the symbol and token of shame and is now present in a new form of life.  This is potentially the destruction of all their concepts of God other than Mathilde who is intent on saving life.

She is the other side, the beautiful practical, skilled,French Nurse whose primary aim is to ensure all life she comes across is maintained and taken care of.  The thin line traversed between these seemingly inextricably linked forces is brought out with feminine sisterhood and morality being upheld through the living forms they share.  Hence the initial gesture of the Abbess relenting and allowing her into her world.  She has also secrets throughout and is in quickly failing health a legacy of the past.  Being accepting of medical assistance pushes the limits of her faith.  Here Agata Kulesza portrays the angst as torridly as she dealt with the delusions of War in Ida and he aftermath when she became reduced to a small court circuit judge dealt out tokens of Law when the greater magnitude of injustice had justed been visited upon an entire continent.  Here the stakes are no less explicitly defined.  The magnitude is the depth of depravity that ranges up into the lives of the Innocents,  the sinfulness of the world which is now brought inside their order and is seen as part of the grand design and mechanism of Divine worship.  The merest consolation is as directed by the Abbess, to the devotion to prayer and it is little reconciliation with the outside, now inside world.


Worn characters

Mother Superior has the role of being a defender of the faith and ways of the Lord which she summons up the most fervent chains of belief which have the capacity to devour her devotion in the midst of this conflicting maternal grounding.  Along with this the effect on the Nuns, Maria and as some others reflect on their lives among men, discuss it now with the core central presence of Mathilda, one which facilitated new thought.  Mathilda herself is set some challenges which she submits too comfortably to and with greater ease than you might expect.  The strands of personality are thus shaped into very individual needs and the Mother Superior’s world is the one with the greatest challenges it seems.
Inspired by the journal notes of Madeleine Pauliac, a young French Red Cross doctor who worked in Poland at the end of World War II, “The Innocents” (which was called “Agnus Dei”)  it is set in 1945 Poland occupied by Russian troops with the opening frames are within the Convent of the Benedictine closed order of Nuns at Daily prayers.  From this capsule of peace and tranquility will spill the infiltrations of the Outsiders and those still surrounding them.  It is graphic in its gripping sense of evil and wickedness as visited upon this location and still resonates with seclusion, self denial, faith and feeling interlaced with God and humanity all subjects around today.  The portrayal of beauty is the tangible simplicity of core inner beings and the imperious self reflection done through denial of all objective things and this is how the scenes, drama is thrust forward relying on phrases looks and almost minimal monotonal effects.


Mathilda has to keep the whole presence of this secret inner Convent story away from her colleagues she travels back and forth to, for fear of bringing down the Orders whole presence and she is not least tasked in this, through her male colleague a Jewish French Doctor whose parents went to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp.  He is Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) is a self deprecating suitor of this young and beguiling Nurse.

While this film pushes the limits with heartfelt tremors of emotion which will have many coming away sickened, elated, coruscating about the needs of women of all timescales, elements of history, not having the instilled goodness to life according to need, the story does take some fairly plain, consoling overtures and simplifies certain aspects for the sake of film making I guess.  It reaches conclusions rather too radidly and conversations which begin to explain the personal hidden views and they vary immensely, are unfortunately short while centrally illuminating.  Each Nun has a reason or belief drawing her into this Christ union.  A book I’ve read, probably one of the finest, is a short true story of the early life of Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery Paperback – January 27, 2005 by Karen Armstrong (Author) telling of her time as a novice and the considerations she had to make.  

 

The look and feel of story telling.

The appearance of the film is vivid and lucid like a representation of renaissance painting having moved on from being as the allegorical Biblical paintings preceding, telling a story from the Bible.  Here the framing and cinematography is a moving interpretive painting elegantly disposing of its interior messages as much through dialogue and expression as in giving a sense of separateness the film has concerning these Nuns in their secluded life and the contrasting confounding outside which has only just set down, temporarily the guns of war.  They have to deal with the violation of a deeper self and abortion is not among their options.  Where this seems to stand up for  Anne Fontaine and the writers is the contrasting of certain worlds.  As of today and victims of rape they are no different circumstances but simply deeper questioning f where morality has taken us.  The sin is first in the war and in the belly of the warring soldier is a desire to shed his guilt through violence upon women as a deliberate defiant act.  An expression of the lost masculinity war invokes.  The experience opposite to its portray and as betrayal of themselves as human beings.   Anne Fontaine has a sharp story with which to explore those aspects however simplified some elements here turn out.


Conclusion ####4

This is perhaps an attempt at a redemptive film but I see the conclusions not informative of the unique experiences then or as they intend to advance.  Too many loose ends are bundled into neat reflective outlets.  It nevertheless stunningly  grasps its raw material as insight and is told without judgement, a surprising word to use as the actors have to convey the differences and complex challenges it makes of their own vocations.  Even the Nurse has to seek out her own values and then separate them from her ability to help everyone. This film covers war, rape, religion and all strands of humanity in trouble and as a quest for understanding how these issues have and are being dealt with will stimulate many more discussions and create better informed views hopefully.  It is thoroughly recommended as one of the Best Foreign Films of the Year in which there are several other excellent contenders including Son of Saul which was itself a Polish depiction of a the Concentration camp at Berger-Belsen and as such fits into a set of unknown or barely conceived brutality which film makers now take on with greater clarity and effectively.

John Graham

17 November 2016

Belfast

THE INNOCENTS will screen at QFT from Fri 18 – Thurs 24 Nov.
Well worth the effort in going to see and the large widescreen does amplify the experience.

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