Rape as a weapon of war, or simply as a reward to the male soldiers fighting it, has played a part in many conflicts.
It’s December 1945, almost seven months since the German surrender brought the end of World War II in the European theatre. Nuns in a Polish convent are conducting a religious service, but one young novice (Teresa, played by Eliza Rycembel) seems distracted. After the service concludes, she trails behind the others; then furtively flees the convent, running across snowy fields in her long habit. Reaching a small town, she makes her way past boarded up buildings and piles of rubble to find a doctor—and not a Russian or Polish doctor, as she specifies to the young boy who offers assistance.
He brings Teresa to a French Red Cross hospital, where she begs physician Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage) to come with her to the convent. Teresa is adamant that she can’t go to the Polish Red Cross and when dismissed by Mathilde remains outside the hospital, kneeling in the snow and praying. This convinces Mathilde to come to the convent, where she finds a woman crying out in pain and about to give birth (a breech birth, as it turns out, which explains the urgency of finding medical assistance). The Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) says the pregnant woman is a local girl the convent took in after she was thrown out by her parents, but the truth is later revealed to be something quite different, which also explains why Teresa was adamant that a Russian or Polish doctor would not do.
Les Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine, is based on a real historical event, and the character of Mathilde is based on the French physician and resistance fighter Madeleine Pauliac. The event in question is the gang rape of nuns at a Polish convent by Soviet soldiers (and remember, the Soviet Union was one of the big four Allied Powers during World War II, thus helping to defeat Germany and liberate Poland). Many of the nuns died as a result of repeated rapes, while the survivors became pregnant—a misfortune in any context, but made all the worse because the victims were bound by vows of chastity and obedience. The first was violated involuntarily, due to the violence of the Soviet soldiers, but that does not make them feel any less ashamed, nor would it make the townspeople any less eager to condemn them. The second was violated voluntarily, first by Teresa in bringing the physician to the convent, then by another nun (Maria, played by Agata Buzek), who facilitates the physician’s return visits. For these actions, both nuns are condemned by the Mother Superior, who seems less concerned about saving lives in the here and now than she is with obeying what she believes are the commandments of her faith.
Wartime rape is one of those realities that tends to get left out of the history books, which prefer to talk about war in terms of glorious victories and battlefield heroics. Yet rape as a weapon of war, or simply as a reward to the male soldiers fighting it, has played a part in many conflicts (and no country or ethnic group has a monopoly on the practice). Thee women are collateral damage in the greater task of defeating the Germans, and to even acknowledge what has happened would be to risk offending an ally that helped accomplish that goal.
My description may make Les Innocents sound like a social problems film, but in fact it’s a beautifully paced, meditative film concerned with big philosophical issues conveyed through rich character studies. There are a few characters beyond Mathilde and the nuns, including Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish doctor also working for the Red Cross, but they are almost bit players in a story that is ultimately about how women of quite different backgrounds and beliefs must find a way to deal with a very difficult reality.
It would have been easy to turn the nuns into caricatures, but Fontaine and the writing team (including Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine, Philippe Maynial, and Alice Vial) avoided that easy route and instead have created a film that appreciates the moral complexity of their world. Life in the modern, scientific world is not simple either, as Mathilde must struggle with her beliefs as much as anyone living in the convent. She also faces more mundane issues, the most obvious of which is how much she should put herself at risk for people who seem determined to resist her best efforts to help. | Sarah Boslaugh