In the battle weary months after WWII, 33-year-old French doctor and former Resistance fighter Madeleine Pauliac was working for the Red Cross treating wounded soldiers in Poland. This quietly powerful drama fictionalises her case notes involving a convent of nuns.
It opens with ambitious young doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) discovering a novice in labour. Sworn to secrecy by the fearsome mother superior, Mathilde carries out a caesarian (looking up how to do the procedure in a medical encyclopaedia). Seven more nuns are pregnant, Mathilde is told, raped months earlier by Russian soldiers who broke into their convent. If the world discovers the nuns’ secret, they will be shamed and the convent shut down.
This story feels almost unthinkably horrific. I put off watching ‘The Innocents’ for weeks. But in the end, it’s an emotionally involving rather than harrowing film, with scenes as beautiful as oil paintings. At the start it’s almost impossible to tell the identically dressed, traumatised nuns apart. But gradually their personalities emerge. One nun is in denial, and won’t let Mathilde touch her. Another has lost her faith. A third is bonding with the life growing inside her. All are facing the agony of becoming mothers – how do they live with that? Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who had a life in the world before joining the convent, copes best.
The real-life story had one final tragedy. Madeleine Pauliac died in a car accident a year later, in 1946.