Monday, July 4, 2016

The Innocents Film Review, 2016 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection, and Blog Tour

Joanne Kulig in The Innocents. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
The Innocents is not an easy movie to watch.  Set in December 1945 Warsaw, Poland, shortly after World War II, this film shows some of the atrocities that remain long after the official war ended.  The colors are muted and dark against the stark white snow on the countryside and the starched white habits framing the faces of the Benedictine nuns.  The barren trees, camouflage uniforms, and the nuns’ long black habits create an aura of somber tones and great contrast.  Sadness, loneliness, and a measure of isolation seem a fitting state of being for the characters in the film, especially considering the circumstances and their surroundings. 

A female director, screenwriters, editor, cinematographer and a predominantly female cast depict this story inspired by true events and the war from the perspectives of various women.  Viewers see things through the eyes of a nonbeliever, the French Communist doctor named Mathilde as well as a cloistered community of Benedictine nuns, who range in their level of devotion and understanding of their vocation as consecrated religious.

The notion that a cloistered community protects anyone from man’s inhumanity to man is shattered.  Beliefs about the nature of faith, suffering, discernment, and prayer are all challenged as these women religious face the aftermath of haunting traumatic circumstances.  External and internal factors contribute to the unrest, confusion, and fear these women face.    

Whenever I hear any foreign language, it triggers that part of my brain, and I begin to slip in and out of thinking and speaking in French.  Since fluent in French, I paid close attention to what was said versus how it was translated into English subtitles throughout the movie.  Any discrepancies that were particularly interesting or entertaining, I would tell my husband about.  In most cases, though, the English translation is quite close to the French.  (Since I don’t know Polish, I can’t speak to the accuracy of that aspect of the film.)    

Any mention or depiction of war, past or present, reminds me of Europe.  Ever since I studied abroad in France during my junior year of college, I view battles, war, terrorist attacks, soldiers, and civilians differently.  Not until I saw the damaged buildings and walked the Normandy beaches during my time there did the trauma of war really hit me.  When wandering about towns where the fighting had been intense, we saw buildings damaged that have never been repaired.  Imagining the sheer terror of being attacked hit much closer to home than it ever could have when I’d read about the World Wars or looked at the many photos taken.  Suddenly, we were there in the towns ravaged, possibly staring at some of the same vantage points other people had before their untimely deaths.

A nun who has walked quite a ways asks orphan children living on the street to take her to a doctor who is neither Polish nor Russian.   They lead her to the French Red Cross.  Mathilde often sees these children playing outside of the base where she is serving.  Their antics and the fact that even as orphans living out on the street in winter they’ve maintained some level of playfulness seem to lift her spirits.  

Though quite shocked by what she witnessed when still a medical student, Mathilde nonetheless throws herself into serving the French Red Cross (La Croix Rouge). Initially, she dismisses the nun the orphans bring to their outpost, saying she should go to the Polish Red Cross for assistance.  Mathilde's secular lifestyle and view of the world clashes boldly with the austere life these women religious have chosen.  Will they bridge the gap between two worlds when it’s a matter of life and death?  

Joanna Kulig and Anna Prochniak in the Innocents.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Mother Abbess holds tightly to her sense of traditional Catholic values and attempts to protect her community from shame and dishonor.  She reluctantly allows the French doctor in to treat the women in the convent.  At first, Mother Abbess gives no indication at all that she is suffering ill health.  Eventually, when she is in a great deal of pain, she allows Mathilde to examine her. It's discovered she has a serious disease, one that will eventually kill her, but she firmly refuses the medicine to treat it.   

Due to the horrifying circumstances these women faced and the life-long vow of chastity they've all taken, many are very scared  to let even a female doctor examine them.  Some in the community are able to relate better than others to this worldly woman who is primarily concerned with their physical well-being rather than their eternal salvation.   

The film raises some interesting moral and ethical questions: Can their religious community be protected from public scorn and condemnation in light of what’s happened?  Is it ever permissible, even advisable, to lie?  If so, under what circumstances?  Is blindly trusting and doing what one is advised to by superiors (especially when it means violating your own conscience) the best way to go? 

Lou De Laage and Agata Buzek. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Obedience versus disobedience is an important theme.  Both the women in the convent and Mathilde go expressly against the wishes of their superiors in order to carry out what they believe to be the most compassionate, ethical way of doing things.  One woman who entered her career set on saving lives comes up against a group of women who have vowed to spend their lives saving souls. 

Sister Maria describes the life of many believers to Mathilde as being “twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of faith.”  I like how faith is treated as something that is different for each person.  There isn’t a sense of perfect tranquility or unfailing joy in any of them that persists throughout the entire film.  This makes the struggle of believing in a loving God all the more real and palpable when they are surrounded and infiltrated by so much evil.    

The Innocents was an Official Selection at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.  The film is rated PG-13 and is in French and Polish with English subtitles.  The Liturgy of the Hours prayed/sung by the sisters and the scenes in the chapel are in Latin without subtitles.  

Due to the graphic nature of a few medical scenes and a sexual assault, I would not recommend this movie for families or children.  Most of the other violence is not shown onscreen, mainly alluded to in conversation, but this film is disturbing enough that my husband and I couldn’t bring ourselves to watch it more than once.

Will The Innocents be coming to a theater near you?  Click on this link, then select THEATERS to find out. 
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