The Innocents is based on a harrowing true story of a Red Cross doctor discovering a group of pregnant nuns at a local convent in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The pregnancies are courtesy of a group of Polish soldiers who visited the convent and spent a horrifying three days at the convent, gang-raping the nuns repeatedly. The film is careful not to be exploitative at all; we see nothing of the horrible events that precipitated the medical crisis at the convent, not even in vague flashbacks, and the tone of the film is quiet and minimal. At first, I thought it was a bit too subdued for such a horrible story, but as the film progresses, the pain and the sorrow and the suffering just sinks into your bones in a way it wouldn’t have if the film had been more explicit and melodramatic. The film has almost no humor and is shot in the icy greys of chilly convent halls and snow-covered forests with little music. It’s a bleak movie in a lot of ways, but it finds a measure of redemption that is shot through with grief, but still hopeful. The cast is quite good. Lou de Laage is very good as the youthful Red Cross doctor struggling to understand the enormity of the crime and the strange faith of the nuns; she was, and this is not meant to be offensive, distractingly beautiful in an odd way. She’s really just stunning and it felt weird to be so conscious of that in this very bleak film about sexual violence. But she was good, so it wasn’t a case of finding a bombshell for the role or anything. Agata Kulesza is brilliant as the haunted Mother Abbess of the convent. You might remember her as the atheistic aunt in the Oscar-winning Ida from a couple of years ago; I wasn’t a fan of Ida, but Kulesza was by far the best thing about it – and she’s even better here. Agata Buzek is phenomenal as the second in command at the convent; the film begins by being about the doctor, but by the end it has subtly shifted to focus on Buzek’s character and it’s her emotional journey that you’ll remember the longest. This isn’t an easy watch, but it’s artfully done in every way, allowing the pain of sexual violence to become front and center without ever indulging in cheap dramatics. It’s painful and will probably be too slow for some people, but if you give it a chance, you’ll discover riches here; give yourself thirty minutes to get acclimated to its rhythms and styles and you’ll end up being moved in a profound way. 4 stars.
tl;dr – harrowing true story of sexual violence against nuns in the 1940s is minimal and artfully done; never cheap or exploitative, but a profound experience in sorrow; brilliant performances too. 4 stars.