Poland, December 1945. The war is over but the countryside remains prostrate with suffering. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a doctor working in a French Red Cross hospital, is called to an isolated convent to examine one of the nuns. The sister is pregnant. So are six others, victims of a mass rape carried out by a passing battalion of Russian soldiers. No one must know — not the Poles, or the Allied forces.
Based on actual events, “The Innocents” has a glossy, sometimes overly tidy surface beneath which beats an agonized heart of sisterly solidarity. Half melodrama, half Holy Minimalism, mostly engrossing, the film is guided by the idea of two women moving slowly toward each other in friendship and understanding, one an atheist doctor and the other a worldly bride of Christ.
The convent is almost entirely in denial when Mathilde is called in to deal with a breech birth; the combination of trauma and vows of chastity means that most of the sisters won’t even allow themselves to be examined. Many of them are struggling with their faith. “If it happened, it means He wanted it,” says one of the nuns (Katarzyna Dabrowska). “This life He has forced into me, what does He want me to do with it?”
The Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza), glowering protectively, doesn’t even want a woman doctor on the premises, but Mathilde is supported by Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), a stern-faced young nun who gradually melts into the movie’s moral conscience. After the doctor chases away a second invading troop of Russians by claiming the convent is under quarantine, she’s embraced by the sisters in a lovely image of acceptance and light.
More straightforward and less self-consciously artful than the 2013 Oscar winner “Ida,” another drama of postwar Polish spiritual crisis,“The Innocents” is remarkable to look at throughout. It’s not coincidental that there are as many women behind the camera as in front of it. Director Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”), working with cinematographer Caroline Champetier and production designer Joanna Macha, creates a cloistered world eons away from and yet hard by the wracked mid-20th century. The lighting and visuals recall Vermeer at times, but the film’s sensibility and sympathies are more in tune with the women in his paintings.
The only major male character, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), is Mathilde’s fellow doctor and occasional lover; a Jew who lost his family in the camps, he’s a screenwriter’s conceit given low-key likability by the actor playing him. “The Innocents” doesn’t have to push its vision of an unseen world of women existing parallel to and at peril from the bloody arenas of men. A sequence in which the sophisticated Mathilde is stopped at a checkpoint and nearly raped herself pulses with panic and is a reminder of how easily and quickly civilizations dissolve.
Which only makes the relationship between the doctor and Sister Maria so pleasurable to witness; two women nothing alike yet finding commonality in experience. Fontaine and her phalanx of screenwriters arrange for a climactic plot twist and one final villain, after which spring arrives and the story is satisfyingly resolved. That and de Laâge’s very cinematic glamour may remind you that we sometimes make movies to rearrange and neaten up unforgivably harsh history. But “The Innocents” has enough rewards to compensate. It gives us war as seen by the women it rolls over and it quietly exults as they help each other back to their feet.
Directed by Anne Fontaine. Written by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Phillippe Maynal, Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 115 minutes. PG-13 (disturbing thematic material including sexual assault, and some bloody images and brief suggestive content). In Polish and French, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.