“Faith is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope.”
The Innocents is one of my favorites from the Newport Beach Film Festival. Set in late 1945 Poland, Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a young French woman doctor, is summoned to a Benedictine convent to aid in the birth of a child. She discovers that there are several pregnant nuns there, the results of rape by first German and later Soviet soldiers. The Abbess (Agata Kulesza) is adamant that this not be reported—it would mean shame and the closing of the convent—but she agrees to allow Mathilde to return and care for the nuns.
Films in recent years have often treated nuns as something of a dark force within the church. The Innocents treats them with respect, even in times when they may do things that we would deem as inappropriate or even sinful. The film gives us a chance to consider what life within a cloister is like. It shows us the daily rhythms built around prayer. We get insight into what it means to take a vow of chastity and maintain that vow even in extreme circumstances. For example, some of the pregnant nuns do not want Mathilda to touch them even to examine them or deliver the baby because it may go counter to their vows. Even the greatest sin that we observe, we are not asked to judge harshly because we know that there is a reason (although we may question that reason) for such action, and also because of the guilt that weighs so heavily on the one who does it.
The setting for the film in the aftermath of World War II, shows us a world that is still very broken and in need of healing. There are orphans running uncared for in the streets—even playing atop a coffin sitting in the road. The convent was not spared the horrors of war. Even as the story plays out, the presence of Soviet troops continues to be a threat to the convent—and to Mathilde. The war, although technically over, continues to play out in the lives both inside and outside the walls of the convent.
Mathilde is very much an outsider in both worlds. Within her Red Cross mission, because she is a woman, she doesn’t have the same prestige as a male doctor would have. She is relegated to being an assistant. Within the cloister, where she doesn’t speak the language or understand the religious life, she is very off-balance, but soon learns to adapt.
Much of the film involves a contrast between the sisters and Mathilde, an unbeliever. Mathilde has many conversations with Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who serves as her translator with the nuns. Mathilde discovers that these nuns, some old, some young, all have a devotion to God, even as they struggle with doubts, especially in the face of the evil that has been visited upon them. Some have lost faith, others hold to it strongly. Mathilde seems fascinated by the faith they hold which is so different from her own approach to the world. Yet she also sees that they may well be happier with their lives than she is with hers.
The film touches on the question of how God can allow such evil to exist, but without dwelling on it or trying to answer such and unanswerable question. Rather it focuses on how one moves on in the aftermath of such devastation—whether personal or societal. Mathilde struggles within her non-religious worldview just as the nuns struggle with their faith. Yet both must strive to find ways to move forward and to heal the deep wounds within themselves and the world.
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films.