24 Hours of Doubt, One Minute of Hope

“24 hours of doubt, one minute of hope.” That’s Sister Maria’s (Agata Buzek) answer to Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) when Mathilde asks her whether it has been difficult to keep her faith. The Innocents (Les innocentes, 2016; streaming on Kanopy and Amazon Prime Video) worries at the loose threads of sin, faith, the horror of war, and faithfulness to one’s accepted calling, and manages to hold them together in a single film.

The Innocents is based on the true story of Polish nuns raped by Russian soldiers at the end of World War II (although, according to the journal notes of the inspiration for Mathilde’s character, of the 25 nuns at the convent, 15 were killed by the Russians, and there were 5 pregnancies). Everywhere there are threats, not only the continuing danger to the nuns as Poland is occupied by the Red Army, but the threat of scandal if it is discovered that the nuns have given birth. Mathilde’s position, as well, is in danger if she is discovered to be helping non-French citizens. But her humanity and (in the film, at least) her assault at the hands of Russian soldiers, keeps her steadfast in her commitment to care for the nuns and their children. The doubt that Maria expresses comes not only internally before God, but externally in the uncertainty of the nuns’ position in a now-Communist country.

Part of the compelling nature of the story comes from the fallout of horrible sin. The nuns have taken a vow of chastity, and for some of them, that means that even being raped is a sin. They feel themselves complicit in some way, and perhaps the Church, not to mention the villagers around them, will view them in the same way. But however they view their participation in the actions of the soldiers, they are forced to decide how they will deal with the physical, and not only the psychological and moral, consequences. The pregnancies remain, and childbirth is going to happen, whatever their desires, maternal or otherwise.

This is the reality of living in this world: sin is often traumatic enough, but then we are confronted with the question of what to do with the destruction left in its wake. The story seems timely in more than one way, especially as the national argument over abortion has reached a pitch that I don’t remember in my lifetime, with the leak of a draft opinion from the Supreme Court dealing with Roe v. Wade. Obviously, many of those protesting do not have anything like the concept of sin, and likely view it no differently than the archaic teachings of the convent in The Innocents. It seems as if the nuns have put themselves into a needlessly complicated situation. To many, it would be simply easier to “end the pregnancy” and be done with all the moral casuistry. The Abbess (Agata Kulesza) decides, in fact, that the deaths of the infants (after she baptizes them, of course) will be easier for everyone involved.

Christians, however, do not have the freedom to decide for themselves what is right or good. So we are often confronted in this world with such difficulties: rape is a dehumanizing horror, and so is the murder of infants. The women and the babies are both the “innocents” of the title. To decide in favor of life for one at the cost of death for the other is to dehumanize them a second time. The nuns in the film, whose faces are repeatedly and vividly captured on camera by Caroline Champetier, respond to their ordeal in different ways, but it is Mathilde and Maria who find the truly compassionate solution in the convent becoming a post-war orphanage.

The Innocents is a stark and wrenching picture of faith, doubt, hope, and the nature of vocation. Toward the end of the film, one of the nuns tells Maria that she is going to leave the convent to take care of her child, and “pursue [her] vocation differently.” The circumstance has been forced on her, but she takes up the responsibilities of her faith in a new way because of it. “Behind all joy lies the cross,” Maria says to Mathilde. Such is the nature of this world. The cross is not a desperate end of life, but the way to resurrection, since for Christians bearing the crosses that are laid upon us is following Christ in His way. And His way is the way of abundant life.