The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine, proves that although World War Two is most often the port of call when it comes to historical films, it’s far from being overdone. Fontaine explores the relevance of religion, faith and chastity in a world that has just endured the bloodiest war in its history.
So no, The Innocents is not a barrel of laughs, far from it. The French-Polish film takes a remarkably understated look at the world in the wake of a war that forever changed it, specifically from the perspective of a convent of nuns in the Polish wilderness. These women were brutally attacked by occupying Soviet soldiers and are now facing several nearing births from illicit pregnancies. It’s a provocative piece of subject matter for a film, and suitably Fontaine rarely shies away from the horror that these women face in their own unique circumstances.
The film is undoubtedly a quiet and contemplative piece of work. For many viewers, this turns the film from an interesting character study into an agonisingly boring sequence of events that just seem to drag on. The various twists and turns throughout the film do not remedy this. However, the quiet and contemplative rhythm never impeded the plot, but instead added to the understated horrific mood that perpetuated at its core.
That’s to say nothing of the more upsetting scenes in the film which Fontaine handles with the perfect balance of grace – so that events do not come across as gratuitous, and honesty, so that viewers are kept entertained. That’s ultimately what puts this film in a calibre above that of the likes of Saw. The Innocents doesn’t need shocking violence to make its point. Instead, much of the screen time is dedicated to developing the living and breathing characters that realistically interact with each other, all so that when something dramatic does happen to them the empathy that has been carefully built up in the audience’s mind since the opening frame of the film induces a far greater horror than that of guts and gore.
The Innocents can proudly state that it is a film made by a female director, an strangely rare occurrence, about women. It becomes hard then to see the film in any other lens but that of a celebration of feminist sisterhood. Fontaine makes a point of showing that all of these women come from different strands of life, but when they come together they can genuinely be a force of good in the world, no matter their creed, ethnicity or religion.
If you decide to see The Innocents, don’t expect a spiritual successor to Sister Act. Instead, expect a story that is filled with the horror of post-war Poland, which makes the glimmer of hope at its thematic core all the brighter.