WASHINGTON (CNS) — Anne Fontaine, director of Coco Before Chanel and Gemma Bovery, released her most recent work, The Innocents (previously released as Agnus Dei), about a group of Benedictine nuns in Warsaw, Poland, raped by soldiers after the Second World War and the doctor who comes to their aid.
The film is centred on French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage), who is stationed in a Warsaw clinic and is found there by a panicked Benedictine nun, begging her to come back with her to the convent. There, to the doctor’s surprise, she finds a sister about to give birth and others in their final stages of pregnancy.
Mathilde, a non-believer, enters into the sisters’ strict religious community, abiding by the principles of the order and Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza). Fearing exposure, the women conceal the hostility forced upon them by Soviet troops, causing an inward battle between their faith traditions and their reality.
In the winter of 1945, mass rape occurred in major Polish cities taken by the Red Army. The nuns were not spared as soldiers rampaged through the convent.
Fontaine said that she was inspired to tell the story after looking through the diary of the French doctor.
“When I first discovered this story, I was so impressed by the intensity and the complexity of the situation,” said Fontaine. “I thought that it would be something very deep and very encouraging for a movie about women inside the community who couldn’t speak with anybody about what happened to them.”
To produce an authentic story, Fontaine said that she worked with a Polish historian who could help piece together the forgotten elements.
The Innocents, she said, tells an important story about deep faith.
“It’s about survival,” Fontaine told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from France, where she lives and works. “Even if the facts are dark, very emotional and very difficult, the characters have a possibility to live. Life is more important than anything. Even if it is as traumatizing as that.”
Fontaine said The Innocents, in many ways, was different than the other films she has produced.
“It’s very different because it was not a story that was so difficult or complex,” said Fontaine. “There is drama, but it is also a historical movie. It was different because it was in Polish, and I do not understand the language. I had to imagine how they lived together in a community, and the fragility of that community. It was different from my other movies but it was not so different, because there were very strong female characters.”
Despite being a film about the Second World War, Fontaine said that The Innocents takes a different approach.
“The approach is completely from the inside,” said Fontaine. “It is not from a historical point of view. It is from inside the Benedictine community.”
Fontaine explained the message that she hoped audiences would receive after watching the film.
“I think this movie has a message of hope,” said Fontaine. “Even if everything is dark, you have a light somewhere. You can go where something is possible.”
She said that even though the film is focused on a religious community, she hopes that it will appeal to all audiences.
“People feel close to the story, even if they are far,” said Fontaine. “Not many (people) are in the religious community. What happens to these women is so strong and asks so many questions about life, about God, and what is hope. It is something that everyone can ask at any moment in their life, even if it is not the same situation.”
“What touched me the most, and what I attempted to convey in the film, is how fragile faith is,” Fontaine said in a pre-Sundance interview.
“We often believe that faith cements those who are driven by it,” she added. “That’s an error: as (Sister) Maria confides to (the doctor) Mathilde in the film, it is, much to the contrary, ‘24 hours of doubt for one minute of hope.’ ”
The Innocents, which was selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opened July 1 in New York and Los Angeles. A limited national release was to begin July 8, and openings are scheduled in other cities through the rest of July, in August and in early September.
— with files from Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service