There's a new film out about nuns. And we can never have too many films about nuns, of course. The film "The Innocents" is about a convent in Poland in 1945, at the end of World War II, where horrors have occurred. Horrors not just from the war and the Nazi occupation, but from the newly-occupying Red Army. I won't be able to go any further in this review if I don't tell you more. SPOILER ALERT: The whole film is about the fact that many of the Sisters were raped by Russian soldiers and are now pregnant. Each Sister, from the Mother Abbess to the youngest novice, deals with it in her own way.
A SENSITIVE, NON-SENSATIONAL FILM
Why are filmmakers so fascinated by nuns and sex/pregnancy/babies? And most specifically: pregnant nuns? Do they see it as the ultimate oxymoron? The ultimate contrast? The ultimate conflict? (And in some cases, the ultimate joke?) Thankfully, "The Innocents" is none of the above. This is a very sensitive, non-sensational film of based on actual events (and many nuns have been raped and gotten pregnant during other wars as well) that manages to wrap itself around and enter deeply into the psychology of this very pointed and specific trauma.
A young female doctor working with the French Red Cross is summoned to the convent to assist in the several births that will be occurring all around the same time. She does so at great peril to her own life and risks being penalized by her superiors. The Mother Abbess' main concern is to keep the "scandal" and "secret" quiet. Her utmost concern is the "honor" of her convent (as if they were at fault somehow!) The babies will be quietly given to relatives of the Sisters to raise.
There are many nourishing conversations about doubt, faith in God, the problem of evil, "God's will," and happiness, both among the nuns themselves and with the young doctor. Over time, most of the Sisters are able to accept and embrace the life within them (without accepting the heinous and harrowing violation).
Without a working knowledge of the Catholic Church at this point in history (and the ancient, entrenched subculture of religious life): the nuns' attitudes toward the will of God, the vow of chastity, the body, sex, the vow of obedience, authority, Providence, sin and modern medicine will definitely throw you for a loop. What???!!! The Church teaches that???!!! No. And the Church didn't even teach exactly that THEN. The good Sisters were in dire need of some Theology of the Body (fortunately, seminarian Karol Wojtyla--within the borders of their very own country, ordained 1946--would be working on that...). And who knows what kind of a life some of the Sisters had before entering the convent? How many were already physically or sexually abused? What if they had already been shattered by the War?
I would think that any sexual abuse or rape survivor would appreciate this film. The perspective is fully a feminine one (female director and screenwriters--along with male screenwriters) and the aftermath of rape and rape/pregnancy is explored in multivalent ways. One of the most poignant is that of a woman suddenly (or now in a new way) feeling terribly alienated from her own body. Never is the nuns' ordeal downplayed or shown for anything other than the egregious, monstrous crime it is. And yet, a sisterhood of solidarity and trust develops, which includes the young doctor, and they are able to support each other and even find joy in the tiny beings (of whom they are truly mothers now) who are soon to emerge. What transpires from here I will not spoil.
"The Innocents" is styled in a strongly European strain, which is positive if you like slower-moving films, unfolding and reflective in real-time (especially at the beginning) that are not afraid to examine the human condition in its stark interiority. American films are afraid to do this, but excel at showing stark exterior realities.
"The Innocents" is a truly religious film. Religious films are about God, not the trappings of God or His human mouthpieces. The nuns are three-dimensional characters with backstories, and even the most fearful nuns are genuine in their timidity. And for all their skittishness about the body (and not just because of the rapes), these nuns are very demonstrative and huggy.
No one has an easy life or easy answers in "The Innocents." A Jewish doctor who plays the Red Cross doctor's minor love interest is delightfully honest and unvarnished in the face of his own tragedies.
Thank you to whoever made this film for caring about rape victims everywhere--and the lives of nuns. Thank you to whoever made this film for telling yet one more of the millions of stories of suffering from "The Good War" and Communist oppression, dying to be told.