By Gwen Cusing
Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents” is an admirable attempt at answering the age-old question of faith versus science, but it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Equipped with skillful cinematography and a story with plenty of promise, veteran director Fontaine’s newest film is, in the end, a cold disappointment.
Based on a true story, this film follows French Red Cross medic Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), as she becomes involved with a problematic situation taking place inside a secluded Polish convent after World War II. Upon her arrival at the convent, Mathilde is shocked by what she discovers: several pregnant nuns who have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of Soviet soldiers.
Fontaine treats religion and science with an impressive sense of respect as as the film delves into the separate world enclosed by the walls of the convent. Mathilde, an atheist from a communist family, immediately clashes with the strictly devout Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza). The Mother Superior is severe and closed off, but in her we see a fiercely protective maternal figure who strives to protect the convent and its inhabitants’ reputations at all costs. The film starts with the Mathilde and the Mother Superior in direct opposition, but as the story progresses, faith and science begin to merge. Mathilde forms an unexpected partnership with Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), a figure of stability in the convent. Maria is able to act as the middle ground between Mathilde and the unwavering Mother Superior, inviting both the nuns and the audience alike to be open to the grey area between the polar opposites.
The film is beautifully shot in cool blues and greys, a reflection of the often somber, quiet nature of the story. However, the artistic cinematography does not mask the film’s major shortcoming: the lack of emotional connection with the audience. “The Innocents” is a classic case of a plot-driven story that leaves too little time for the audience to get to know the characters; as a result, it is nearly impossible to get a sense of who the characters are and to understand their motivations.
This is partly due to Fontaine’s imbalanced focus on Mathilde: although the story follows her experience, we know little of her background and she rarely provides a visceral reaction to the events of the film. Her role is that of a mediator who can allow the nuns to share their own stories and reveal their individualities, but Fontaine wastes her in short and irrelevant scenes referencing. The disconnect is detrimental, as many of the poignant scenes between Mathilde and the nuns in the film do not quite evoke the empathy they should. Thus, we are left studying the characters from a distant perspective.
This is not to discredit the admirable performances of some members of the talented cast. Agata Kulesza’s portrayal of the icy Mother Superior is one of the bright spots in this film. Kulesza explores the complexities of her character well, unwrapping each layer of the Mother Superior’s personality, and makes her character the most developed in the film. The first impression of the Mother Superior is a somewhat negative one. She is cold and strict. As the film progresses, however, Kulesza masterfully reveals what lies beneath her stern façade.
Agata Buzek’s Sister Maria is similarly laudable. Sister Maria is arguably the central character of the film despite the focus on Mathilde’s life; she is the representation of the push and pull of faith and science, and Buzek portrays her pivotal character with great respect. Like the Mother Superior, Maria is seen as detached and severe at first, but we begin to root for her as her backstory is revealed and we see her stand up for herself and what she believes in.
The result is a quiet but commendable attempt somewhat muted by the disconnect between the characters and audience. Despite a triumphant cookie-cutter ending, “The Innocents” is an imaginative look into the ways in which we choose to heal and persevere after facing crippling tragedy.
Contact Gwen Cusing at 17gcusing ‘at’ castilleja.org.