The Innocents begins the process of expanding beyond the art house walls of New York and L.A. this weekend after a solid start at the specialty box office — proving with its convent setting that against all odds, there are still stories left to be told about World War II. Director Anne Fontaine (Adore and Coco Before Chanel, among others) wrote the script for The Innocents based on the life and work of French doctor and resistance fighter Madeleine Pauliac, who provided aid to a convent of Polish nuns during World War II after the women were raped by occupying soldiers. In Fontaine’s film, Madeleine has become Mathilde, and the nuns are presumably composite creations, but the story hews close to Pauliac’s diaries and to the research Fontaine did living in convents to prepare for the film. Mathilde, an atheist and Communist doctor, answers the call of a Polish nun, whose convent is filled with sisters about to give birth to children conceived as the result of rape by Russian Allied troops. Mathilde helps them in secret to protect the convent, lest notoriety of the women’s pregnancies cause a scandal that ends their order.
On the grand scale of scandalous nuns of cinema past, the nuns of The Innocents are, well, innocent. This is not an exploitation film — the unholy wonder of the nunsploitation genre probably peaked in the ‘70s — nor is it a film devoted to spreading the Christian faith like recent hits Heaven Is for Real or Son of God. Instead, by centering on Mathilde, The Innocents becomes an opportunity to explore women’s spiritual, physical, and emotional lives from the perspective of the non-religious.
The women at the center of the story each have their own relationship to motherhood, to sexuality, to trauma, and to faith. The mother superior of the convent refuses treatment for the syphilis she contracted due to rape, and her insistence on trusting divine providence with her own safety and the safety of the convent may or may not be a result of post-traumatic depression. The sister who found Mathilde loved men before joining the convent but has found happiness in the simplicity of convent life. Sister Irena doesn’t especially care for religion, since she only came to the convent searching for safety during the war, and she is resolved to leave a free woman once the child she bore from rape is born. Sister Wanda resists gynecological care lest it be considered a sin in the eyes of God. Sister Anna finds faith in motherhood, and Sister Zofia fixates on her new role as a mother, whereas Sister Ludwika doesn’t recognize her own pregnancy, let alone the child it produces. And alongside all of them is Mathilde, whose vocation is the preservation of life regardless of belief.
To see a film with this many fully developed female characters is rare, and watching women talk to each other and tend to each other’s needs without the interruption of men is even more rare. The Innocents is also not bound to the codes of Christian chastity obeyed by women in these orders, and its open acknowledgement of sexuality lifts the oppressiveness that can be hard to dissociate from religious spaces. In its own quiet way, The Innocents offers a form of escapism. It’s hard enough in life, let alone at the movies, to find an intergenerational group of women unconcerned by the presence of men.
Films are expensive to make, and it is difficult to produce films with majority female casts due to a persistent myth that women’s films are unprofitable. But convent life creates a society of women that for obvious reasons cannot admit a man, and it is a society familiar to any part of the world where Christianity has made an impact. This society of women is perceived as being non-radical — or at least their faith constitutes a radicalness that is condoned by society. The nun film, then, is a practical means of negotiating a rigged market, a way for filmmakers to explore the complexities of women’s lives without being cut off from access to a general audience.
The homosocial society that nuns occupy existed before feminism, before women’s rights, before gender theory or queer theory. But in the world that exists now, after the implementation of those ideas has made it possible for women to maintain some autonomy without the walls of a cloister to provide a structure, the nun film is a reminder that there are other ways of being, other sources of knowledge, other worlds we occupied before we gained access to the world that men built. When it comes to generating ideas for a better world, it doesn’t hurt to look for the places in the past where a different life was already possible.