A battered convent, during the waning days of 1945, lies nestled in the rubble of monochrome despair. Long shadows lick the desolate landscape. Here, faith is tried by circumstance. Director Anne Fontaine’s post-WWII film is pockmarked by clasped hands, bowed heads, and worn benches. Philosophical quandaries and existential pyres: the tinder for all spiritual infernos. Throw in the fallout of battle torn Europe, unchecked carnality, and unflinching pride and you have a movie that ticks every dramatic box with a blunt-tipped Sharpie.
In “The Innocents”, a sanctuary in Poland falls prey to a cluster of morally bankrupt and salacious Russian troops, and, several painful months later, the aforementioned monastery finds seven of its sisters pregnant and without proper medical care. When a French Red Cross worker named Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) is enlisted, secretly, to deliver a child under the curtain of night, a clash of power begins. One of the nuns advises against medicine, pressing for “herbal” methods instead. It’s a volley of arcane oaths matched against the backhand of modern treatments. Religion vs practicality. The good book vs. penicillin. Pride vs. procedure. Etc. vs. etc.
Lou de Laâge plays the wary but resolute doctor. Specked by blood. Arms heavy with tools. She smokes with half-mast eyelids, and wonders, aloud, about the cruelty in this world. It is a performance that is largely void of texture and nuance. The actress doesn’t look like she’s living in her character’s emotions, but rather concentrating on the act of portraying them. That said, Lou de Laâge’s turn as a morose Red Cross worker is more distracting than terrible (her character doesn’t look lived in).
And then there’s the groan inducing dialog (“the more time passes, the better you are in bed…”) that takes me out of the movie and into a hellscape of clumsy screenwriting. Just because something is devastating doesn’t make it inherently captivating: you need well-written characters, distinguished camerawork, and some sort of aesthetic compass. Fontaine’s movie is tragic, and there is a real, visceral story here (one that should be told). But much like Ryan Little’s “Saints and Soldiers”, this WWII-era tale makes me think of the prop department more than it does of the properties of war. As it is, “The Innocents” remains a film in need of texture.