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‘The Innocents’ is a harrowing tale of rape in a convent during wartime

It’s called Matins. It’s the first prayer service of the day in convents. It’s the one at the beginning of “The Innocents” where the Benedictine nuns in a Polish convent at the end of World War II sing their first Gregorian chant.

As they do, we in the audience hear a bloodcurdling obbligato to that celestially serene music – the inconsolable screams of a woman in difficult labor down the hall. The nuns continue their singing.

We don’t know at first that a woman is in labor but it’s an easy guess considering the uninterrupted chant.

Anne Fontaine’s French film (with English subtitles) “The Innocents” remains absorbing after that for a long while.

The sound we heard was indeed that of a woman in a very difficult labor. We discover very soon that 1) the baby is presenting as a breech birth and must be delivered via cesarean section and 2) the mother is one of the convent’s nuns.

One of seven, in fact, at the moment who are pregnant and are coming to term almost simultaneously.

Why? Because they were all sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers who “liberated” them.

The Germans were first, say the shell-shocked nuns. Then came the Russians. There was little, if anything, to distinguish their barbarism from one another in Fontaine’s film.

Based on the experiences of a real French Red Cross doctor in 1945, “The Innocents” is about a doctor named Mathilde who is sought out by the one young nun in the convent who seems to have had a relatively sophisticated life before taking her vows.

Unlike so many of the young nuns, she wasn’t a virgin when she was ordained. In this cloistered world, she was one who knew when a sophisticated doctor – not a “Polish” or “Russian” one – was necessary. So she found a way to get to the female doctor from the French Red Cross Mission.

Who then becomes privy to the harrowing story of this convent, which is dealing with its horrific history and its current predicament in secret. They are, in fact, still subject to sudden visits by their Russian “liberators” – these women who, by and large, feel that even to be touched is a sin.

Before the tale is over, we in the audience have seen all kinds of inhumanity, including the cruelty of unyielding religious faith.

It is suspenseful. And then, at the end, it is beautifully fulfilling.

And, because of its convent setting, it is full of the kind extraordinary visual imagery familiar to us from great classical painters like Caravaggio, De La Tour and Rembrandt.

In other words, the dark nights lit only by kerosene lamps (formerly candles), the blacks, whites and blues of nuns’ habits, the white walls of the convent, the white snow on the Polish ground in winter. The film remains visually powerful even when the predicament becomes something less than burningly dramatic.

A powerful and ultimately rewarding film, nonetheless.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

review

3 stars (Out of four)

Title: “The Innocents”

Starring: Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Magaigne

Director: Anne Fontaine

Running time: 115 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for mature theme and sexual assault during wartime.

The Lowdown: A Polish convent at the end of World War II is beset by raping soldiers. With subtitles.

Showing: Opening Friday at the Dipson Eastern Hills and Amherst theaters.