Sins of their Fathers
"Films with a theological bent never get far from the oldest question of theodicy: Why does a loving God allow his children to suffer? It’s the rare film that offers any nuance in its answer. In films that make the point that God can bring good out of evil, there is always a danger of becoming facile and condescending—an unexpected blessing proves that it was all for the best, and the evil wasn’t so bad to begin with. The Innocents, by contrast, offers evidence of healing and grace without downplaying the grief and trauma that preceded them. And it does this while addressing a moral blind spot of our popular culture.
The film, written and directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Anne Fontaine, is set in 1945 Poland and inspired by true events. It tells the story of a convent struggling with a secret: Many of the nuns are pregnant by rape after a harrowing occupation of the abbey by Russian soldiers. Against the Mother Superior's wishes, one nun recruits a French Red Cross nurse to help them. Though the nurse, Mathilde, is the film's viewpoint character, the nunnery as a whole is the film's protagonist, for the nuns must grow and change, respond to their trauma, and find a new way to live their vocations.
It’s a moving story, sometimes hard to watch but always beautifully shot. Nuns in dark habits running through snowy woods make for a moody Mise-en-scène. In starkly lit interior scenes, the women debate how to reconcile the injustices they have suffered with their faith in God—as well as the practical question of how to deliver babies safely with very limited resources. Thanks to Mathilde’s medical heroism, the nuns get to meet and even begin to bond with their sons and daughters. Sister Maria tries to convince Mathilde, child of godless Communists, that Mathilde herself is an instrument of God’s mercy.
It’s hard to walk out of the theater dry-eyed. The catharsis accompanies a subtle theological insight: God can bring great good out of terrible evil. Nonetheless, the evil was evil—we can’t, like Mother Superior, do evil that good may come of it. The rapes were true acts of depravity and yet the babies are true blessings. Bad does not “wash out” good, nor vice versa, as sophomoric pessimism or chirpy optimism might hold. The film gives the nuns room both to grieve the injury done them and, eventually, to rejoice in motherhood. Theirs is the way of the Cross and the Resurrection."