“It is stories that urge me to make films. To be able to tell them with a film. Stories sink into me, they fill me and they give me urgency”. With these words Anne Fontaine, a Franco-Luxembourgeoise film director tells how her latest film, Les innocents [The Innocents], was conceived. It is her masterpiece. Reading a few sentences from the diary of a young Frenchwoman doctor in service in Warsaw, together with the memory of her aunt, a religious, brought Fontaine to examine in depth a dramatic and hidden event which occurred during the last war: the repeated rapes of Red Army soldiers in a convent of Polish sisters and the subsequent birth of children with the help of this doctor.
Until this moment Anne Fontaine had been an actress, scriptwriter, and director; she had filmed comedies, psychological dramas and thrillers, films appreciated by the critics which won her several nominations for important prizes, but it is with this film – shot entirely with a female film crew – that she reaches both the highest and the deepest points of her work.
It is a film on unspeakable and painful subjects, such as sexual violence, the conflict between motherhood and the religious vocation, the need to violate rules to make room for life and for love.
This film faces and answers a controversial question: does the choice of a religious life mean specifically the denial of the body? And what does this mean specifically to women who in reality are always led back to their corporal nature by their monthly periods, by the menopause and, in cases of rape, by motherhood? The director proposes a great reconciliation between the concept of virginity chosen through faith and motherhood imposed by violence. This is a reconciliation which must make one rethink the ecclesiastical rules which, in such cases, still establish a termination of the religious state and the reduction to the secular state. If maternity is always a moment of miraculous giving, why exclude sisters who are basically living the experience of Mary, Virgin and Mother?
The Polish sisters raped over and over again by the Russians are annihilated and paralysed by horror and fear. They are the very image of the most devastating effects of violence, practised on women who have made a vow of chastity, who thus see their lives overturned. Some of them even deny the reality of what is happening in their bodies. However, we then witness a sort of miracle, a reversal of the situation thanks to two acts of disobedience, both dictated by love: first of all Sr Maria flees from the monastery in search of a woman doctor to save the life of a the sister giving birth and then finds one at the French Red Cross. Then the French doctor, night after night, disobeys the orders of her superior in order to help the sisters who are giving birth. This takes place under the distraught gaze of the Abbess, a complex and contradictory figure who finds the strength to assume responsibility for all the sisters in a rigid application of the Rule, even though she knows that this may mean the death of the new-born babies.
Thus the atmosphere is grim; but the meeting with the young French doctor, a Communist, a non-believer who risks even her life in order to help them, opens a window and is a breath of fresh air. From disobedience – punished by the Abbess, although later she accepted its positive consequences – life is born. Some of the sisters speak to the young Frenchwoman and confess to her their doubts and regrets, one even her intention to leave the monastery as soon as she can. For among the rapists there was also a nice young man with whom a love story came into being. Good and evil begin to mingle and are no longer rigid and separate territories.
If at the outset the religious seemed to be a group of women who were all the same, unified by community life and by the violence they had suffered in common, we later see their specific individual characteristics emerging and the different relationship that each sister has with the doctor.
However, what truly changes everything in the lives of the religious and basically also in that of the young Frenchwoman is motherhood. It is their bodies which change and make them women like others, women who give birth to children, unwanted but subsequently instantly loved. The mystery of motherhood, of the capacity of the female body to create life, overwhelms them, as does the immediate emotion which they feel for their little ones, a feeling which makes it impossible for the Abbess to continue her terrible practice of abandoning the newborn infants.
It is their bodies which unfold new dimensions of life, breasts ready to feed the little ones, the very strong bond with their babies that they feel as soon as they take them in their arms. It is a bond which cancels the fear of dishonour and shame and that brings them to look anew with hope at life, despite the horrors to which they have been subjected. Thus a dramatic conflict with the Abbess arises, resolved thanks to an idea of the two “disobedient” ones, Sr Maria and the doctor: the sisters take the orphans of the village into the convent and bring them up together with their own children. In this way no one will think badly of them and they will be able to keep their children and at the same time to continue – as they wish to do – their religious life.
In a few moments it becomes clear that rules, but basically the idea of God itself, can become an idol, and that faith can only be lived by opening one’s heart to mercy for everyone, one’s own children and the children of others who are needy. It is only in mercy that true life is born, the true relationship with God, a mercy reawoken by the relationship with life.
There is another even more important and profound aspect which emerges from this film: birth as a continuous Incarnation. The birth of those babies from virgin women reminds us that God was made flesh in a potentially scandalous situation and that he lived in our midst and put up with stupidity and weakness, violence and horror. And that it is therefore only in the flesh, in mercy for our flesh and for the flesh of others, that we can meet him.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 27, 2020
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