Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jul 04, 2016 4:13 am 
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A story of pregnant nuns after World War II

There isn't much violence till forty minutes into Anne Fontaine's film, when the French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge of Breathe) is stopped by Russian soldiers, thrown down, and is on the point of being raped when she's rescued by a Russian officer. But rape by Russian soldiers has happened to dozens of the Polish nuns Mathilde is trying to help, and seven of them have now become pregnant in this film dramatizing actual events in Poland in December 1945 after the end of the War when real-life doctor Madeleine Pauliac braved personal danger and religious objections to save just such a situation. The Benedictine nuns, who are not supposed to show their bodies or be touched, face scandal that might destroy their order if events are disclosed. Mathilde is joined in the effort by Samuel (a less wispy than usual Vincent Macaigne), a French doctor. The context is complicated by the fact that Samuel is Jewish, the new Polish communist government isn't friendly to religious orders, and Mathilde herself is a strongly free-thinking daughter of leftists.

Shot in a reduced palette that brings out the delicate differences between the nuns' personalities, the film depicts a developing complicity, even love between them and Mathilde. Lou de Laâge is authentic, even radiant, in her role; Agata Buzek is powerful as the French-speaking Polish nun Maria.

All the births come within a short period of time. The unusual situation is not handled well by the mother superior. The second act of violence comes forty minutes later in the film, when it emerges that she has committed sinful acts, consigning two of the babies to "providence," leaving them to die out in the snow under a cross. This does not make it easier for the young nuns, whose instinctive motherhood is awakened, in some cases, and whose faith is challenged at the best of times anyway. Then it becomes the task of Mathilde, and the film, to deliver some hope out of this sorrow.

With the restrained cinematography, the beautifully simple settings, and an adequate to fine cast, Anne Fontaine has produced a more impressive film than usual. Amid Fontaine's generally mediocre production -- comedies like The Girl from Monaco and the cruder My Worst Nightmare; the underwhelming Coco Before Chanel; the celebrity fiction Gemma Bovary; the fizzled whodunit Entre les mains, and so on, The Innocents stands out as something so touching and pure one wonders how it happened. Or maybe she just has not been good at choosing her projects, but this time hit the right one.

The Innocents/Les innocentes, 115 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2016, where it was reviewed in Variety by Justin Chang, who called it "her best film in years." (It was then entitled Agnes Dei.) Released in France 10 Feb. 2016, with enthusiastic critical reception (AlloCiné press rating 3.9/24 reviews; viewers' rating 4.1). Shown in the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. Limited US release began Fri., 1 July 2016.

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