I almost didn’t watch The Innocents. That would have been very stupid of me.
In December 1945, French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is taking care of Polish concentration camp survivors while she and her comrades await to get transferred back to Paris or Berlin. A nun of a nearby convent runs to the Red Cross station while the other Sisters are singing their morning hymn looking for a doctor to come help her with a situation back at the convent that she is unwilling to disclose. At first, Beaulieu refuses to help, but after seeing the Sister praying outside and declining to leave, she reluctantly agrees. One of the sisters is pregnant and about to give birth. Beaulieu helps successfully birth the child through C-section. She soon learns several other nuns in the convent are in their third trimesters of pregnancy, all raped by Soviet soldiers, who visited the convent three times. The convent’s Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), herself raped and suffering from months of untreated syphilis, is desperate. Poland’s new communist regime has little intention of supporting the Catholic Church, and even though the sisters were raped, the vow of chastity nuns take is so important that if word got out the nuns at the convent are pregnant, they may also suffer persecution from the church.
The Innocents, based on actual events, takes the concepts of basic filmmaking — good acting, great writing, rhythmic pacing, visual storytelling — and uses those things to maximum potential. From the opening shot of the nuns walking down a gray, stone corridor on a snowy day, seeing the tops of their white and navy blue coifs and bandeaus, I knew I was in for something special. Film, as a visual medium, needs to have good visuals. That might seem obvious and extremely simplistic, but it’s true. The best looking movies are not the ones with the best CGI, nor are they the ones with the prettiest colors. The best looking movies are the ones with so much attention to detail that if you were to pause a specific moment in a movie, that image would look as good as a still photograph. Filmmakers should always use the aesthetics of still photography when shooting movies. This includes controlled use of lighting — including natural light –the types of colors in the shot, the shadows in the images, the framing of inanimate objects, if the subjects are in focus and, most importantly, if the actors and actresses are filmed with dignity, that they actually look like people and are not just things in the frames. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier executes this masterfully. Nearly every frame captured looks like a photograph from a newspaper, a magazine or a top-notch history book. The only other 2016 movie so far that looked this great was The Witch.
Another important technical aspect of the filmmaking process is editing. Most movies have pacing issues, but each year at least one movie has exemplary rhythm. Last year, that honor went to Spotlight, Sicario and Steve Jobs. The Innocents is the best paced movie of the year so far. In the movie, scenes are built to move to other scenes, and cameras linger just the correct amount of time on certain shots to give the audience information, and let them sit, and think, feel and process. Writer/director Anne Fontaine and team know which shots are most important, and they let you, the audience, enjoy them.
The Innocents is a French-Polish-Belgian co-production. All of the characters either speak French or Polish. The film gives you a genuinely French and Polish point of view of some of the terrors people had to experience in Europe near the end of and after World War II.
This movie examines big themes objectively and tastefully, including the concept of motherhood, faith and skepticism, being a person of faith and how to take teachings of love, patience and understanding to improve one’s own life, as well as the lives of others. Because the nuns each have to take a vow of chastity to promise themselves to God, they are ashamed of their current situations. They know what happened to them is not their fault, but they still feel like they have failed in their pious duties. Due to the fact almost everybody outside the convent wants nothing but bad things for the sisters, they each struggle to figure out what to do, especially the controlling and hypocritical Mother Superior, and the broad-minded Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who develops a friendship with Beaulieu. Just like regular human beings, they are scared, they hate what has happened to them and sometimes they either feel like God abandoned them or is not with them all the time.
All but two lead characters are women. All of the female characters struggle with having to be a woman in society, including the nuns, who only seem to get respect from people because they are nuns. Beaulieu’s supervisor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), who she has casual sex with, does not truly respect her, and she has to deal with the fact that when the French Red Cross leaves Poland, she might have to go back to her controlling parents, despite being in her late 20s. She is even almost raped by Soviet soldiers herself after trying to legally drive through a military checkpoint. However, the film isn’t overtly feminist. The movie does have hints of feminism, but they are extremely subtle, and mainly the women just struggle with being women. The feminism theme is just as impartial as the other themes. The women do not revolt against the government, and there is no epic fight scene with the Soviet soldiers.
Despite this movie being from the point of view of European characters and filmmakers, these are not just the struggles of sexually abused nuns in 1945, these are the struggles of sexual assault victims around the world in 2016. These are not just the struggles faced by those questioning their beliefs in 1945 Europe, these are the struggles of every person who experiences crises of faith. The script, on which Fontaine was joined by Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bontizer and Alice Vial, is already great, but every actor takes what they have to read, transcends the near-perfect material, and bumps this movie up to 11. The two standouts are Laâge and Buzek. I was aware the whole time that I was sitting in a chair in a movie theater, but I still forgot I was watching a movie, mainly because of them.
This is also the type of movie in which, when awards season approaches, especially in the U.S., will allow people in the film industry are going to dress up in fancy clothing and pat themselves on the back for being champions of diversity and bringing a movie like this to the forefront, despite the fact not many of those people will ever watch this movie, nor would any of them have anything to do with this movie being great. A line from this movie is “Faith is 24 hours of doubt, and one minute of hope,” which is how I sometimes feel about the film industry. The Innocents is the movie we need right now. This is not a movie that is bloated with special effects, stupid dialogue, idiotic character motivations, bad acting, poor editing, a rushed production or a preachy message. The Innocents reminds you of what being a human truly means, and reminds you that movies are art, not just marketing products that ask people to give up their hard-earned money to an industry that gets more cynical by the day.