Saturday, August 06, 2016

Les Innocentes

Like Land of Mine, Les Innocentes deals with another little-known slice of the aftermath of World War 2 but takes place in a convent in Poland rather than on the Danish Coast. It's also set in 1945, but towards the end of the year. Around nine months earlier, the retreating Russian army had paid repeated unwelcome visits to the convent and as a result a number of the nuns were pregnant As the film opens, a second nun is in labour.

Pregnancy in the convent was problematic on many levels. The Mother Superior was particularly worried about the convent being publicly disgraced so she was all for dealing with issue in-house and, for the most part, pretending it wasn't happening. Some of the other nuns were worried about their sisters dying in childbirth and, the babies being homeless. The film didn't really feature the perspective of any of the pregnant nuns, but they certainly weren't talking about their plight, and were mortified by their condition. An environment where you're discouraged from looking at or nurturing your own body would hardly make for an easy pregnancy, and there was certainly no ante-natal care.

The film opens with one of the nuns taking the initiative. Upset by distress of  her sister in labour, (the screaming echoes round the  building) she leaves the convent through a hole in the fence and walks through the forest in the snow to the nearest town to seek help from the French Red Cross. They're reluctant to help (it seems they're there to assist injured French soldiers) and want her to ask the Poles which she refuses to do since the possibility of the aforementioned public disgrace is so much greater. She manages to persuade a woman doctor (Mathilde) to come to the convent, and Mathilde ends up performing a C-section to deliver the baby

Keen to provide some post-natal care (and puzzled by the reluctance of the Mother Superior to allow it), Mathilde becomes aware of the existence of the other pregnant nuns and gets involved in trying to provide ante-natal care and of course assisting with the deliveries. She conscripts one of her male medical colleagues to assist.

Other reviews of Les Innocentes criticise the film appearing to be a docudrama about the unusual   circumstances that Mathilde finds herself working in and not presenting a viewpoint on the shape the film. I don't really agree with that - I felt that it was examining the contrasting attitudes of the Mother Superior and  her right hand woman Maria, They featured partly because they were the ones who could speak good enough french to communicate with Mathilde, and partly because they represented authority. The Mother superior was more concerned about the convent's reputation and about upholding its routine and Maria was more concerned about the welfare of the sisters and their babies. One of the film's defining moments is the Mother superior leaving one of the new babies out in the snow (leaving it to "providence" to decide the child's fate) while telling the sisters she had taken it to the mother's family. I can't really reconcile what seems like pre-meditated murder with being a bride of  Christ but I'm prepared to cut her a little slack since she had contracted syphilis from the Russian soldiers and probably wasn't on top of her game. Ditto for the decision to turn down Mathilde's offer of antibiotics to treat the syphilis. Certainly the routine life of the convent doesn't lend itself to  dealing with unforeseen circumstances like pregnant nuns, and the Mother superior has found herself in a situation she has had no experience with.

Whether or not you feel the film has a viewpoint, there's plenty of room for forming your own, particularly if you have a working knowledge of Christian doctrine and there's lot to think about afterwards. Equally you may just appreciate having your attention drawn to another group of people who suffered as a result of the war despite not fighting in it and to the people who helped alleviate that suffering. The ending is unexpectedly positive which I appreciated but some critics have felt was contrived.

Anne's rating 3.5/5 Ian's rating 3.5/5

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