Poland, 1945. The war has ended. Its consequences endure and continue to unfold as Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a young French Red Cross doctor on a mission to aid survivors of the German camps, is summoned to a convent inhabited by nuns who suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers nine months earlier.
The nuns revisit their ordeal in daily nightmares, horrific memories, and the lives growing inside them, their torment magnified by the religious dogma at the center of their existence. To be pregnant is a scandal. They have nowhere to turn. Their families will reject them if their plight becomes known. They cannot turn to the civil authorities, the new communist government, or the occupying Russian army, which are not kindly disposed to the Catholic church.
The abbess (Agata Kulesza, Wanda in Pawel Pawilkowski's Ida) covers up the awful secret as she tries to maintain order. She does not welcome Mathilde, who was sought out by a disobedient young nun fearful for the life of a sister about to give birth. Only grudgingly does she accept Mathilde's help, persuaded by Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who though not an elder seems to be second in the convent's hierarchy and is something of a confidant to the abbess.
Maria forms an uneasy alliance with Mathilde to do what can be done for the pregnant sisters even as she wrestles with her faith, questioning how God could possibly want this, for if it happened it must be because God wanted it. "Faith," she tells Mathilde, "is twenty-four hours of doubt and one minute of hope." For her part, Mathilde comes from the working class. Her family are communist. She is a doctor because she wants to help people. This is her faith. And she acts on it.
Sworn to secrecy by Maria and the abbess, Mathilde puts herself at risk traveling the deserted country road between village and convent, a road patrolled by Russian troops best avoided. She puts her position at risk when her nightly stints at the convent leave her unable to fulfill her duties with the Red Cross during the day. Unflinching, quietly heroic, she does what she must do. As does her colleague Samuel, a Jew whose parents perished at Bergen-Belsen, when Mathilde is forced to solicit his help when several babies opt to come into the world more or less at the same time.
The story of these innocents, nuns and infants, is told with restraint and dignity. Themes of faith and duty, honor and courage, are conveyed without hyperbole or histrionics. The abbess does a terrible thing, conscious that by her act she is damning herself, convinced that this must be done for the sake of those who are in her charge. Her actions compel the sisters, who owe her obedience, to examine where their duty lies, in accordance with the dictates of faith, amid the torment of doubt.
Les innocentes is a fine film, deeply moving and thought-provoking, perhaps the best I have seen thus far this year.