For as long as film has existed, nuns have been subjects of intense fascination to cinema-goers. Whether it be in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) — which follows a small group of them as they establish a mission among the unreceptive, “primitive” people of the Nepalese mountains — or Pawel Pawlowski’s recent Ida (2013) — which follows an adolescent nun in post-WW2 Poland as she comes to terms with her Jewish ethnicity before she is to profess her final vows — filmmakers have tended to use nuns as easy symbols of naiveté who, upon leaving the convent, are confronted by a hostile universe where their faith is tested at best, or ruined at worst.
While the reigning, anti-theistic ideology that underlies most films about nuns (Sister Act is the only exception that now comes to mind) isn’t inherently problematic, the aestheticization of faith has, on occasion, tended to reduce the complexities of religious conviction to simple-to-resolve binaries. When audiences are deprived of the opportunity to meditate over the many, contradictory possibilities that grapple with whether there exists a higher power, an afterlife or a divinely-mandated moral paradigm, we are right to feel intellectually patronized. This sentiment justifies one’s dismissiveness toward the bludgeoning “God’s not dead he’s truly alive!” of God’s Not Dead (2014) and, on the other end of the spectrum, the irritating anti-religiosity of The Innocents, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year.
Directed by Anne Fontaine, The Innocents follows Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a French medical student working in post-WW2 Poland who encounters a secluded convent of nuns harboring a dreaded secret: a number of them are pregnant after having been raped by Soviet soldiers, their supposed “liberators” from Nazi occupation. Despite this immediately eye- grabbing premise, we spend most of the film tediously shuffling between the medical center where Mathilde works and the convent where she covertly delivers the babies. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but feel as if its messaging failed to justify its runtime, in which repetitive, mirthless didacticism is rife. And neither is there much visual excitement in The Innocents. While it would make for a well-photographed Hallmark tele-movie, its visual staleness echoes loudly through the much larger possibility of a movie theater.
As a Communist and atheist, Mathilde appears to have long made up her mind about the existence of god; her struggles, meant to galvanize our sympathy, are instead against fatigue and her questioning supervisors, from whom she must keep the nuns’ secret. This script-level misplacement of focus makes me wonder how much more interesting a film The Innocents could’ve been had the committee of four screenwriters recognized the potential of making any of the nuns in the convent our protagonist. This would’ve allowed us to not only witness the events unfold from a more interesting perspective, but also to better appreciate the internal conflict between faith and doubt. Indeed, Fontaine tends to elevate Mathilde and romanticize the extent of her sacrifice, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but when coupled with her propensity to ridicule conservative tradition, results in a bitter, unjustified sense of incredulity toward religion. Fontaine portrays the anguished desires of some of the nuns not to be touched by Mathilde as examples of the irrational constraints placed by religious dogma, rather than a potential example of women whose deep devotion manifests in a willingness to endure suffering. Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who serves as the primary liaison between the nuns and Mathilde, in one scene unleashes a clichéd, philosophically barren monologue in which she directly tells the audience, without any attempt to present this information cinematically, that she is struggling to reconcile her faith with the horrors wrought on the convent.
A crucial twist I won’t reveal lest I spoil the plot, which specifically demonizes the Mother Superior, essentially straw-mans the entire concept of religious traditionalism by absurdly suggesting that her undeniably wrong acts are representative of conservative Christianity. Because we are first greeted with a title card explaining that the film is based on a true story, I’m going to assume that this hugely incongruent plot twist happened in real life, and so my criticism would be that the film could’ve presented it better. However, if this twist is fictional licensing (I can’t verify online whether it is or isn’t), then The Innocents ought to assume a place as among the intellectually weakest films of the year.
Allow me to clarify that there are countless sophisticated, complex films that advance an atheist or anti-theist message. However, what these films have at the very least are either a much more refined aesthetic value in which uniquely filmic elements are better utilized as in the case of, for example, The Seventh Seal (1957), or more accurately reflect the near-equal attractiveness of faith and doubt to a person in whom such forces are at conflict, as in the original The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927). In The Innocents, what we instead have is a case of cinematic mediocrity, aggressively advancing simplistic “take-downs” of the Catholic faith, all while concurrently straining, through its esoteric, historical premise, to jostle itself a position on the Oscar shortlist.
Ultimately, as a film not only plagued by a simplistic, prescriptive ideology, but also a middling, uncinematic attitude, The Innocents continues the current trend of Sundance releases that fail to match the hype stirred up by their 100-word descriptions. Indeed, when contextualized in the annals of film history, we can see how more celebrated films skillfully appropriate the easy cliché of nuns-v.s.-doubt into nuanced meditations on the difficult struggle of maintaining faith in the face of an unforgiving world. When we look back to examine those works that memorably contributed to the development of philosophical and theological inquiry in cinema, I guarantee that The Innocents will not be among them.
Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.