In Warsaw, Poland, after the Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s Germany in W.W. II, it’s estimated that the occupying Russian troops raped 500,000 women and about 100,000 of them subsequently committed suicide. Working with several credited writers, director Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel,” “Gemma Bovary”) was inspired by the true story of Madeline Pauliac, a French doctor and Resistance fighter, who helped a group of Polish nuns, most of them virgins, who were convinced that their ordeal has doomed them to eternal damnation. Read on…
Their story begins in December, 1945, when Teresa (Eliza Rycembel), a novice Benedictine nun, begs French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage) for assistance.
Returning to the convent, she is severely reprimanded by the steely Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) and French-speaking Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) for revealing their shameful secret to a stranger.
As the psychological drama unfolds, Dr. Beaulieu learns that, on three separate occasions, Russian soldiers brutally raped the nuns, leaving six of them and one novice pregnant. Since their behavior is dictated by the strict rituals of their order, this insular religious community has become devastated not only by the atrocities but also by repercussions that might tarnish the convent’s reputation.
And once, when driving back to the Red Cross base through the snow-covered forest, Dr. Beaulieu is ominously accosted at a Soviet checkpoint.
Dr. Beauliu’s life is further complicated by her relationship with Dr. Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish physician whose parents died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He ends up assisting the hesitant nuns who are under oath not to allow their bodies to be exposed or touched.
Working with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, Fontaine displays incredible sensitivity to the scandalous situation, particularly the anguish of Mother Superior’s syphilis and Sister Maria’s intricate worldliness (she wasn’t a virgin when she took her vow of chastity).
In French, Russian and Polish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Innocents” is a starkly desolate, yet compassionate 7 with timely relevance for women today.