With “The Innocents,” feminism, and a faith compromised

Les Innocentes

Lou de Laage and Agata Buzek in “The Innocents”

“The Innocents” (“Les Innocentes”)
WHEN: Monday (July 11), 12 p.m.
WHERE: Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St.
TICKETS: $12
MORE INFO: Visit Prytania website

In powerful moment in the 2016 French film “Les Innocentes,” Sister Maria, a Polish nun, is explaining her crisis of faith to a Mathilde, a French doctor whom she’s convinced to help her convent sisters:

At first you’re like a child holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes — and I think it always comes — when your father lets go. You’re lost, alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers. Even if you prepare for it, you’re caught unawares. It hits you right in the heart.”

It says something about the power of “Les Innocentes” (or “The Innocents”) — which will receive an encore screening by the French Film Festival at noon Monday (July 11) at the Prytania — that the most sharply observed scenes occur among women. Indeed, there are long stretches where men are absent, a rarity for a movie set in the aftermath of World War II. The film, directed by Anne Fontaine, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and the critical response has been favorable; it garnered a healthy 88 percent on the film-critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s a well-deserved response; Fontaine uses a somber, meditative approach to tell a story of survival and compromised faith. She works with a history that’s been well covered in cinema, especially if you include its references to the Holocaust, and avoids familiar by bringing a fresh feminist perspective to a time and place dominated by patriarchy.

The heroine, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), is based on the real-life Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who works with other French Red Cross medical personnel in a Polish hospital still tending to the wounded months after the official close of World War II but in the early days of the Soviet occupation. While making her rounds, she meets Maria, a Polish nun who pleads for her to come with her to the nearby convent. After she arrives, Mathilde learns that Soviet soldiers have raped many of the sisters, with several in the final trimester of pregnancy.

Mathilde ignores orders to focus strictly on French soldiers and overcomes opposition from the convent’s leader to help guide the nuns through the delivery, one after another, setting up a series of conflicts. It’s within those sometimes-muddled conflicts that “The Innocents” finds its female empowerment. Part of that is because the most dominant male character, Samuel, her superior and casual lover, knows she’s up to something but seems almost powerless to stop her. Maybe it’s because he has stronger feelings for her than he’s willing to admit, or maybe he trusts her instincts more than someone in his position otherwise might.

But as “The Innocents” unfolds, this clearly becomes a World War II movie about women who fight to be survivors and not victims of man’s inhumanity toward man. For the nuns, that means grappling with their faith, which has been compromised by the brutality suffered at the hands of their supposed liberators. They also have an unlikely foe in their mother superior, Ida (Agata Kulesza), whose unwavering allegiance to church doctrine includes keeping the convent free from scandal by any means necessary. She initially resists the help available from Mathilde, even excoriating Maria for summoning the doctor.

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While she’s also defending an ancient patriarchy, it’s interesting that we never see any male presence at the convent. This isn’t historically inaccurate, but it’s clear that Fontaine wants this battle over whether the nuns should receive outside medical attention (with its potential risk of exposure) to play out among women only.

Even when discussing sex and religion, “The Innocents” offers a modern take, and again, through the women’s eyes. While all of the nuns have taken a vow of celibacy, not all of them were virgins when they entered the convent. One of them even had fallen in love with one of the Soviet solders, and noted how he’d tried to protect the women from his comrades’ repeated assaults. Despite those attacks, the women who’d had some kind of sexual life before the convent reflect fondly of those pre-convent days. Even Mathilde notes she’d had lovers before her arrival, and at no point are we led to suspect that she’s falling in love with Samuel. She sees their relationship for what it is, and not much more.

Indeed, Mathilde seems a bit of a closed book emotionally, and it’s only when she develops a bond with Sister Maria that we start to see her vulnerability. It’s Maria, not Samuel, who successfully draws Mathilde out in their quiet moments together, suggesting an intimacy far stronger than two lovers sharing pillow talk in their off-work hours.

Religion plays a part in this; Samuel is a French Jew who seems indifferent to everyone, including the Poles he believe let themselves be dominated by the Germans and then the Russians. Mathilde is a Communist, which is code for atheist, and it takes personal, reflective discussions with Maria to understand the concept of faith that has become so compromised by the nuns’ circumstances.

Mathilde slowly becomes more involved in helping tend to the nuns as their due dates start to arrive, and she only turns to Samuel when she realizes she can’t handle multiple deliveries. After a harrowing visit to the convent, Samuel finally sees how emotionally invested she’s become, and seeks to console her.

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“The Innocents” was a group effort but with a strong female presence; Fontaine recruited Caroline Champetier for the cinematography, which is a study in gray sobriety. While Lou de Laâge might be considered one of France’s rising stars, and an attractive one at that, there’s a resistance to exploit her beauty. Fontaine collaborated with filmmaker Pascal Bonitzer on the adaptation, with writing contributions from Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial. This shows in the storyline, which gets a little bogged down in the middle section and creates some inconsistent character motivations.

It’s also curious that the real-life figure, Madeleine Pauliac, was actually the chief doctor at the hospital in Warsaw; perhaps the screenwriters believed it would seem more dramatic to have her rise from a more subordinate position at the hospital to help the nuns. At least one review criticized the ending — which I won’t give away here, but one that fits nicely into the feminist, even maternal instincts of the filmmaker.

No matter what challenges the convent will face — whether they be literal or spiritual — it will be the women and not the men who will find a way to face them. At least in spiritual matters, Fontaine refuses to play it safe. She refuses to turn “The Innocents” into an indictment of the Catholic church in particular or organized religion in general, but more to show how women can, when given the opportunity, put their faith into action.

(Note: When I started thinking about writing about the film from a more feminist, I’d Googled around to see what if any female film critics (or any, really) had shared this feeling, or least on a slightly deeper level — and came up pretty dry. Then after I’d started writing, I found this great essay by Teo Bugbee on MTV.com. Enjoy.)

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