Guest Review: THE INNOCENTS (2016)

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Directed By: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza
Runtime: 1 hr 55 minutes

Most war films recount history as if women were never involved or their experiences not worth mentioning. That is just one of many reasons why The Innocents (2016) stands out in the war film genre: it is about, for, and made by women. The result is a soulful essay about atrocities committed against a group of nuns during the second world war, portrayed as a complex metaphorical struggle between religious faith, medical science, and evil.

The linear plotline is as austere as the film’s narrative. We meet a serene and devout convent of Benedictine nuns in Poland who go about their daily prayer with quiet conviction and meticulous adherence to ritual. The serenity is shattered by the scream of a nun about to give birth. One nun fetches a French Red Cross medical intern Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laáge) who sneaks out of the aid mission to help. She learns that Soviet soldiers had raped the nuns and several births were imminent. Mathilde is a non-believer yet is bewildered by the strength of the nun’s faith and compelled to help. The nuns believe they are complicit in sin, and some are unable to even submit to medical examination while others do so with deep shame. The tension between sin and evil erupts when the baby is born and Mother Superior takes it out for fostering but instead leaves it in the forest. With more births coming, a convent full of babies cannot survive under Soviet occupation. It is Mathilde who finds an ingenious solution that ensures their survival.

Within this narrative arc, there are several strands that explore the nature and practice of faith by a group of women with varied backgrounds and different relationships with their god. Throughout the story, the tension between belief and logic creates a haunting presence. Young Mathilde struggles in a vortex of faith, science and evil, and comes to learn that there are no absolutes. The dystopia of war shatters all, yet faith survives in love and devotion to helping others. She grows emotionally with the experience just as the nun’s learn tolerance of those who do not share their faith.

While the film has a strong cast of fine performers, it is Lou de Laage who shines brightly in a difficult role. She seamlessly traverses a wide emotional range from inspired awe to resolute determination to help, including restrained romantic explorations with a senior colleague. The portrait-like cinematography conveys the bleak landscape and convent solitude with a sympathetic lens that avoids despair. The film is a tribute not only to the violated nuns but to women of all nationalities mistreated at the hands of military forces. Rape in war continues in modern times, with many nations in denial and others struggling with unresolved shame. This is not an entertaining story, but a dark episode of history on which light has long been needed.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Innocents’? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF review: L’Attesa (The Wait) starring Juliette Binoche

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It seems tradition that during every film festival in town that I have at least one Juliette Binoche movie on my schedule. Well, she’s still the main reason to see this one.

The film centers on two women who’s somehow thrown together just before Easter, set in a picturesque Sicilian town. The actors speak in both Italian and French which is just incredible as sometimes I can’t even tell which language they’re speaking. The film opens with a close-up of a statue of Christ, and later it’s revealed we’re at a church during a funeral. We’re not told who the deceased person is, but it’s pretty much hinted throughout who it is. We meet Anna (Binoche) in mourning, just as a young girl Jeanne (Lou de Laâge) arrives at the airport to spend time with her and her son Guiseppe.

The title of the film refers to the time the two of them waits for the arrival of Guiseppe for Easter. It wouldn’t really be a spoiler to say that Guiseppe isn’t coming because it’s pretty obvious that Anna is struggling to mention to Jeanne what has happened to her boyfriend. There are some heart-wrenching moments between the two, especially when Anna makes up a lie about why Guiseppe isn’t coming home.The Catholic references in Piero Messina‘s feature film debut is apparent. It might’ve been partly inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture where Mary cradled his dead son Jesus’ lifeless body. It’s heart-wrenching to see a mother mourning the loss of his son, something Anna still can’t quite come to grips with. If somehow she could still keeps his son alive even if it’s just in his girlfriend’s mind, perhaps he’s not really truly gone.

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The film itself requires a lot of patience as it’s deliberately s-l-o-w and reflective. At times it feels overly indulgent and tedious, but thankfully we have two excellent performers that help keep my interest. Binoche is superb as always, believably conveying genuine sense of dread and grief. Laâge, whom I’ve never seen before, is equally compelling as the young and enchanting Jeanne and she has quite a natural intensity that is well-matched for Binoche. The stunning backdrop of Sicily is another plus, which also adds an atmospheric and mystical tone to the movie.

That said, I appreciate this movie more than I love it. I’d say it’s worth a watch if you’re a huge fan of Binoche as it could be wearisome in the way the story played out. But for me, I’m still glad I watched it and was quite moved by the lead performances. The story has a haunting quality that lingers long after the end credits, but it also requires an extensive amount of patience to fully appreciate it.

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Have you seen ‘L’Attesa’? I’d love to hear what you think.