Saturday, July 23, 2016

Anne Fontaine | Les Innocentes (The Innocents)

one moment of hope
by Douglas Messerli

Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine, and Alice Vial (screenply, based on an original concept by Philippe Maynial), Anne Fontaine (director) Les Innocentes (The Innocents) / 2016

Over the last few weeks, I have watched a spate of movies in which horrible events happen, or almost happen, in the last days and after World War II—as if somehow the War’s horrors had spun so out of control, they might never be brought to an end.

French director Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, which I viewed the other day with my friend Thérèse Bachand, easily fits this bill. Set in post-war Poland, then newly controlled by the Soviets, this beautifully shot film is a true horror story that, indeed, is a grueling task to watch, despite its occurring in a convent, where the Benedictine nuns sing beautiful songs throughout the day and even into the night.
      The film, in fact, begins with just such a morning chant, as the nuns in stark black and white gather in a small hall of the convent to sing out their prayers. Soon, in the background, however, we can hear screams which gradually become louder and louder, suggesting, perhaps, that some strange torture is going on somewhere within the bowls of their convent. 
       When a young novice, dressed all in white with a black cloak, quickly escapes the confines of the church through a boarded up back entrance, we might even question if we are not up for some shockers such as those in the Audrey Hepburn film, The Nun. What is all this hidden suffering about?

       Racing down a snow-laden path, outlining a world of white on white (already suggesting some of the implications of the film’s title), the novice makes her way to a small nearby community, where she immediately asks several orphaned boys to take her to American or French doctors, no Polish or Russians, she insists. At the red-cross compound where they are still caring for soldiers from the last days of the War, she encounters the real-life woman doctor, Madeleine Pauliac—here named Mathilde Beaulieu  (the beautiful doe-eyed Lou de Laâge)—begging for her to come to the convent immediately or a fellow nun will surely die. Busy operating on those within the Red Cross station, Mathilde attempts to send the novice away, reporting that they are not allowed to operate on Polish citizens. But when, having finished her operation, she sees the novice outside her window, kneeling in the snow in prayer, she agrees to visit the convent.
       There, to her and our shock, she finds a nun about give birth to a child. But the child is a breech baby, and she is forced to operate. She saves both mother and child, but the second in charge, Maria (Agata Buzek) punishes the novice for having brought in a stranger, and the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza, from the recent Polish film Ida [see My Year 2014) is outraged by the intrusion, explaining that if anyone where to discover the birth, the convent would be closed down and the women ostracized from society. Promising to keep the secret, but still insisting she check on the child and mother the following morning, so is the French doctor drawn into a series of revelations that become more and more shocking as the movie progresses.  

      What Mathilde, the daughter of Communist parents, quickly discovers is that at least six other nuns are pregnant, the entire community having been repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers. At first the doctor is more startled than sympathetic, particularly when most of the women, virgins and committed to chastity, find it difficult to even allow her to touch their bodies, let alone observe their genitals and measure they pregnant bellies to determine the condition of the fetuses. 
      One young novice, however, admits that after she has her child, she will leave the convent to find the man who raped her, since he had protected the order from being murdered and had treated her gently. And soon, perceiving these women as individuals instead of a slightly hysterical community, Mathilde grows closer to them, particularly, while returning home one evening in her jeep, she herself is stopped by the Russians and nearly raped before their leader interrupts their actions.

      Both the fact that she has missed important operations and has been away from her post, brings her under great criticism and scrutiny at her Red Cross base. She must sneak out each night, working almost literally all day and part of the night, soon growing fearful the possibility that there may be multiple births all at once. Yet, the nuns have now accepted her and insist she help them have their children, which the Mother Superior quickly whisks off to local peasant women, apparently willing to take them in.
      The situations which these women face, finally even begins to effect Mathilde’s own relationship with her fellow doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jew whose parents were killed in Bergen-Belsen.
      On another trip to the convent, a child is suddenly born to a nun who showed no signs of being pregnant. The woman refuses to nurse it, and the babe is given to the mother of the first child to be nursed, allowing the woman to create a bond with it. The Mother Superior, herself, it turns out, has also been raped and has contacted syphilis in the act, but refuses to be touched or cared for, seemingly taking on the disease somehow as God’s will.
              When she discovers that Maria has passed on a child to another of the nun’s the elderly leader demands obedience. I will not have a scandal in this convent, she declares, while Maria ironically reminds her that they already have had one.

At another moment during Mathilde’s visits the Soviet soldiers return for yet another of what they describe as an “inspection”; the nuns cower in terror, while the quick-thinking doctor insists that she is visiting the convent because the order is now infected with typhus; the soldiers scurry off.

      Just when we think events cannot get any worse, we watch the Mother Superior carrying away the second child who was being nursed, after which the would-be mother to the babe attempts to follow, hoping to retrieve the child; but she loses her way, as the camera moves forward to watch the Mother Superior put the child on the cold ground in front of a cross, pouring a small vial of either liquor or poison down the baby’s throat. The heartbroken nun, having her “baby” jumps from a tower of the convent to her death, and when, the next day, Maria travels to the peasant woman to tell her of her daughter’s death, is surprised, when she asks about the new babies, that the now distraught woman has no idea what she is talking about. Suddenly Maria has discovered the truth. The newborns have been horribly “sacrificed” by their hypocritically pious leader.
       At dinner that evening the entire order is forced to discover the truth when Maria asks the Mother Superior to explain why she has not been able to find the babies at the woman’s house. “I have damned myself,” admits the now-broken woman, “in order to spare the rest of you any shame.”       
     Soon after, the predictable happens, as several of the pregnant nuns go into labor at the same time. Mathilde is called, but is forced to seek out her lover Samuel’s help, admitting the whole ordeal while committing him to absolute silence. This time the nunnery cannot keep out a male, brought there to help, and the babies are successfully delivered. But now, Mathilde, whose Red Cross group has been ordered elsewhere, there job in Poland done, how will the order be able to deal with the reality of these new births; will they too be “sacrificed”?
      After a long sleepless night, where she is kept company by one of the orphans who swarm about their camp, she hatches a plot. Gathering up all the orphan boys, she brings them to the convent, insisting to the nuns that they can keep their babies if only they change part of their missions, bringing in young boys and girls to feed and nurture them. They glad accept her suggestions, and a final scene, the day when the novices will marry the church, we see the nuns joyfully swarmed by the running urchins and holding several newborns, with cameras capturing their new joyful mission.

      If this ending seems a little simple, sweeping away too much of the horror we have already witnessed, it nonetheless feel some redemption for a group of women who have sorely suffered. The Mother Superior, now dying, lies on her bed a shame without a headdress. And some of the nuns have already left the order. Those who stay, however, like Maria will continue to have to suffer the intellectual tortures of doubt and faith every day. When Mathilde asks her how, faced with all these terrible events, she has continued to believe, explains, that at first it was easy, but then like a small child whose father must eventually release his hand, it becomes difficult. “Faith,” she explains is 24 hours of doubt and one moment of hope.”
      The innocents of this profound film’s title, it turns out, are neither the virgin nuns who have had their innocence taken away, nor the innocent babes whose lives have been sacrificed to religious dogma, but all those of us who might imagine that belief is something easy to achieve and simple to maintain.

Los Angeles, July 23, 2016

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