If there’s a war movie we haven’t seen enough of yet, it’s one from the female perspective, one that further obscures who the good guys and bad guys really are. In Anne Fontaine’s moody feature The Innocents, even the nuns are gray.
During a bitterly cold winter, tucked away in a provincial Polish village just after World War II, seven nuns are secretly pregnant. While the women sing in their barren church with faded blue stucco walls, a shriek echoes in the abbey, prompting one mischievous sister to race through the snowfall and into the woods for help. Some orphans lead her to the French Red Cross. There, she catches the attention of a young woman doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who at first refuses to help the nun, following protocol, eager to please her male superiors with her hardened obedience. But the sight of the nun praying in the snow shakes some ice from Mathilde’s heart, and she comes to the rescue of another nun birthing a breech baby.
Talk of science and faith dominate the conversations of Mathilde and French-speaking nun Maria (Agata Buzek). But both are struggling — Maria with her belief in God after the Russian soldiers who seemed meant to save them imprisoned them as prostitutes instead, Mathilde with the belief that she could ever be a respected woman of science in a male-dominated world.
As Mathilde, de Laâge lets her lip quiver slightly, stoic, drinking a beer in a bar, as her superior (and lover, played by Vincent Macaigne) drones on about the freedom he’ll have to roam after the war, not knowing that days earlier Mathilde had almost been raped by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint. And Maria’s up against a tortured Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) whose idea of honor muddles her beliefs into a destructive force, hurting the nuns with archaic rules and her own sense of order — and even a dash of infanticide.
Now, the idea of a woman’s loss of freedom isn’t necessarily fresh territory. Neither are nuns in a postwar Polish winter; Pawel Pawlikowski’s spare tale Ida (2013) already did a fine job with that, with a black-and-white palette of shadows that perfectly captured the isolation of both the season and the religious calling. But The Innocents departs with a surprisingly warm tone in both color and feeling.
A calming natural light ribbons through every cold landscape, catching the almost translucent white skin of the nuns and the billowing navy and black of their habits — very Vermeer. And where Ida takes a drearier, more realistic approach to the story, The Innocents, despite its seemingly dark focus on a group of women in fear of getting repeatedly raped by their allies, actually has a mightier finish, something of a crescendo to cut through the quiet grief. The sound design mirrors this as well. For every disturbing scream of labor or grunt of a Russian soldier bouncing off the walls, there’s a pure and perfect hymnal meditation carried by the angelic voices of the nuns. The most graphic depictions in this film are of female friendships. Almost makes a nunnery sound like a pretty sweet deal.