French director Anne Fontaine (Gemma Bovery, Coco Before Chanel) continues her roll as an accomplished director with her latest, The Innocents. Having won the coveted Audience Award at the COLCOA French Film Festival held in Los Angeles this past spring, The Innocents, which opens July 1, documents a little-known true story out of war-ravaged Poland in the aftermath of World War II. A French Red Cross doctor discovers a number of nuns from a Benedictine convent pregnant from vicious rape attacks.

Not even a convent is safe in wartime

The Innocents explores the atrocities of war as well as examines the role of faith and rebirth for individuals and a community at large.

Opening in a Benedictine convent as nuns gather for their morning hymnals and prayers, it seems at first a spiritual and peaceful moment. But against the soulful tunes, screams are heard. It’s not long before Sister Teresa (Eliza Rycembel) disassembles a boarded-up door and runs out into the snowy, silent woods. Coming to a township, the nun searches for the French Red Cross shelter. Pleading for help, a Red Cross doctor named Mathilde (Lou De Laage) finally relents and travels to the convent. There Mathilde finds seven nuns pregnant, all victims of rape from Soviet soldiers.

As Mathilde quickly learns to admit this victimization to the outside world, which in post-war Poland is essentially an anti-Catholic Communist government, would bring shame, exposure and who knows what else onto this convent and its nuns.

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The Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza) and French-speaking translator novice nun Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) impose upon Mathilde the importance of keeping this all a secret. In obeying this promise, Mathilde finds herself at risk with her Red Cross service, the Soviet occupiers, and with the nuns themselves.

Based on a true story

Based on a true story, The Innocents’ Mathilde is a representation of the moment in history when real life doctor Madeleine Pauliac worked in the French Red Cross to repatriate French soldiers wounded in Poland. As Philippe Maynial, the nephew of Madeleine Pauliac, describes in the film’s press notes, Pauliac “… accomplished over 200 missions with the Blue Squadron Unit of women volunteer ambulance drivers for the Red Cross… [and] it’s in these circumstances that she discovered the horror … [of] collective rapes perpetrated in convents.” Maynial continues by saying that the film The Innocents (titled Agnus Dei in French) “… recounts this episode of her [Madeleine Pauliac’s] fight as a woman to save other women.”

Preparation for the film

Director Anne Fontaine prepared for the film by first steeping herself in the experience of a nun’s daily life.

In the film’s press notes, Fontaine remarks that she comes from a Catholic family and that two of her aunts are nuns. So she has some connection to this world. Fontaine also went on two retreats in the Benedictine communities to learn more about what the experience of convent life was like from the inside.

Of equal importance was the film’s look. Fontaine and her three-time cinematographer Caroline Champetier researched iconography and the color palette for this world. As Fontaine explains, “We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes.”

The Innocents succeeds as a powerful testament to faith, rebirth and an overall strength of women in history, and to those in front of and behind the camera as well. Definitely place The Innocents on your must-see list.