Saturday, July 30, 2016

Les Innocentes

The Innocents (Les Innocentes) is a French-language film based on a true account from a tragic period in Polish history. Set in December 1945, it reminds us vividly of the Polish saying that it was Poland's lot to lose World War II twice - the first time to the Germans, the second to the Russians.

Most of the film's action takes place in a Benedictine convent, somewhere in the Polish countryside. It opens beautifully with the nuns in choir chanting the ancient Advent hymn Conditor Alme Siderum, when all of a sudden we hear a scream, which turns out to be one of the sisters in labor.

One of the young novices takes it upon herself to walk through the snowy countryside to town in search of a doctor who is neither Polish nor Russian. (This is not a movie about scenery, but the snowy wintry scenes are both beautiful and very effective in highlighting the sense of both isolation and danger that pervades the film throughout.) The young nun finds a young French doctor, Matilde, part of a Red Cross mission caring for French soldiers, who somewhat reluctantly drives to the convent. There she discovers not one but many pregnant nuns. The even more reluctant Mother Abbess finally tells Matilde the truth, how the nuns were repeatedly raped by a group of Russian soldiers - a fate Matilde herself only narrowly escapes on one of her nocturnal trips to and from the convent.

Matilde comes from a working-class communist background, and this could easily be set up as a stereotypical conflict between religion and science, between repressive authoritarianism and modern freedom. Those themes are there, but are subsumed in the much more interesting portrayal of the nuns themselves and the varied ways they respond to their tragic circumstances. Matilde, though a central character, is herself more of a sub-plot. She has a romantic, if only temporary, relationship with one of her co-workers, a French Jewish doctor who also has no concern or love for the Church. (At one point he will even team up with her in delivering the babies that just seem to keep coming.)

Different nuns respond to the crisis in different ways. Most persevere in their vocation, but not all. The most tragic figure is the Mother Abbess, whose obsession with avoiding scandal leads her to commit an even worse sin. (How often has our obsessive fear of scandal led us astray and ended up doing even greater harm than the original source of scandal!)

The future for the nuns is bleak - not only because of their "scandal and disorder," but also because of the problematic situation which Poland (and particularly the Polish Church) now find themselves in, thanks to the Soviet occupation. That darkness is alleviated by the film's semi-happy ending, a "solution" to the "scandal and disorder" that almost borders on an artificial Deus ex machina

Not unlike another Polish film with a convent theme, Ida, which I posted about back in June 2014 (cf., The Innocents fearlessly but sympathetically examines the dilemma of faith in a world which presents other options, which also purport, but with no greater success, to answer the challenges posed by the unsatisfying reality of life in our modern world.

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