I’ve often said that World War II is the greatest subject for cinematic exploration, and I truly believe that movies will endure as long as stories from this complex period of world history remain to be told. The latest eye-opening true WWII story brought to the screen is the French-Polish co-production Les Innocentes, a uniquely female-centric look at the devastating collateral damage of even the most “just” armed conflicts. Set right after the German surrender, the film follows a young woman doctor from the French Red Cross, stationed in Poland to care for her wounded and captured countrymen. When she’s summoned to a nearby convent, she discovers several of the nuns are in an advanced state of pregnancy.
French ingénue Lou de Laâge (Piero Messina’s The Wait and Mélanie Laurent’s Breath) delivers a star-making performance as Mathilde, the young atheist doctor whose compassion for the deeply religious women of the cloister leads her to risk her job and her life to see them through their complicated deliveries. Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial’s layered screenplay takes careful time exploring an impossible situation from every conceivable moral, spiritual, and institutional angle. At first glance, Director Anne Fontaine seems an odd choice for this material. Her previous films Nathalie…, The Girl from Monaco, and Gemma Bovery explore female identity and sexuality through a distinctly male perspective (even Adore, her adaptation of Doris Lessing’s “The Grandmothers” seems designed mainly to titillate male viewers). But the perspective taken in Les Innocentes is unmistakably female. Fontaine grounds us firmly in the world of her young, self-assured protagonist and we discover the horror and beauty, frustration and satisfaction of the story along with the character. Fontaine also possesses a wonderful eye for composition, creating exquisite frames within the bare trappings and minimal natural lighting of the convent. The picture achieves a delicate tonal balance between harsh cynicism and elegiac optimism, leaving us with much to think about and many lingering images.