Set in the middle of the Polish winter of 1945, The Innocents tells the true story of a convent of Benedictine nuns who have been raped by Soviet soldiers, a number of whom falling pregnant as a result. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a medical student of Communist upbringing working with the French Red Cross, arrives to provide assistance, and what follows is a tale of women finding sisterhood - literally - in the face of sexual violence, pregnancy, labour, and child-rearing.
The film opens with a nun breaking ranks, and we soon learn that the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), is struggling to maintain order within the convent in the aftermath of the assault, while also trying to uphold a reputation of chastity outside of it. The Sisters find themselves being tested as they try to reconcile their faith with their bodily experience; meanwhile, Mathilde is also tested. Her medical training has taught her that the priority is to ensure that all mothers and babies receive appropriate medical care, but she comes up against a group of women who are resistant to receiving that care, not only due to emotional trauma but also due to their observance of their faith. She must also keep her work in the convent secret, something that becomes increasingly difficult as her Red Cross colleagues - especially surgeon Gaspard (Thomas Coumans) - begin to notice something is amiss.
Director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) utilises the monotone colours of the winter forest and nuns’ habits to create a barren and simple landscape, and the prolonged scenes of nuns trudging through the countryside - the quiet only punctuated by the sound of boots crunching on snow and heavy breathing in the cold air - emphasise how isolated their lives are. The convent itself, when not silent, is filled with the echoing sounds of stone and wood and the a capella chanting of nuns; in contrast, Mathilde lives in a warmly-coloured, noisy and bustling world of a working Red Cross hospital, further emphasising the differences that the women have to overcome.
While the story is shocking, highlighting the different ways in which the female body can be assaulted, it is sensitively told, and the fact that the film is uncovering an unknown chapter of history makes it all the more worthy of viewing. However it is the development of the relationship between Mathilde and the nuns - a particularly touching scene shows Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) helping to button up the back of Mathilde's dress - that carries the film to its pleasing conclusion.
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