The aftermath of World War II has provided the setting and subject matter for some of the most powerful films of the last few years, especially as regards European imports. Prime examples include Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida and Christian Petzold's Phoenix, two adventurous films that devel-oped their own methods for exploring personal identity and the psychological effects of war. Presented as part of the New Orleans Film Society's 19th annual French Film Festival, director Anne Fontaine's The Innocents is more conventional in concept and execution than those films, but still manages to pose burning questions in an artful and original way.
The Innocents was inspired by the real-world experiences of World War II French Red Cross Dr. Madeleine Pauliac, who uncovered the horrific truth of widespread sexual assaults of Polish women by Russian soldiers during the final months of the war. Victims of these assaults included Catholic nuns and novices living in secluded convents. Pauliac not only gave medical treatment to these women but also the psychological and practical support required to maintain the convents and the nuns' way of life in the aftermath of terrible trauma.
Fontaine's film stars Lou de Laage as Mathilde, a French Red Cross doctor modeled after Pauliac. (De Laage also has a lead role in The Wait, or L'attessa, another film at the French Film Festival.) Brought by a desperate Benedictine sister back to her convent, Mathilde discovers the shocking reality of at least seven pregnant nuns, the result of a days-long occupation of the convent by Russian troops. None is receiving medical care for fear of exposure to the local community, but also because their vows preclude them from being examined or touched by a physician, even a female doctor. Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza, who played the title character's long-lost aunt in Ida) believes the convent would be closed and the sisters shunned if word got out.
The introduction of the worldly atheist Mathilde into the cloistered environment of the convent sets up an epic clash of secular and religious worlds as they existed in Europe just after the war. Multifaceted and driven by ideas, The Innocents is smart and capable enough to juggle disparate themes, from the fragility of faith to the duties of motherhood to the dangers of religious fundamentalism. It reveals its secrets slowly but maintains a pace brisk enough to keep us fully engaged with the story.
In her first adult role, de Laage comes across as the essence of clear-eyed compassion. Her emotionally and sexually liberated Mathilde helps bridge the gap to today's world. Kulesza, one of Poland's top actresses, was 42 during the shoot but manages a convincing turn as the much older Mother Abbess. Though shot largely within the austere setting of a period Polish convent, the film's visual style intentionally recalls the lush compositions of Italian Renaissance painting.
There's a timeless quality to The Innocents that makes it hard to pin down. It feels like it could have been made at any time over the last 40 years — as long as that time was receptive to sophisticated, adult-oriented dramas. It replaces the oversimplified, "us-versus-them" mentality of many war films with a keen interest in understanding those different from ourselves. A female perspective may be just what war films always have lacked.