“The Innocents”: A Harrowing, True Story of Strength in the Face of Evil

by Catholic Media, History of the Church

I am actually trembling and tears are welling up in my eyes as I sit here writing a review for this movie. The Innocents is truly a harrowing, yet at the same time inspirational film.  It is one of those rare films that has the ability to change you as you watch the story unfold.

The Innocents is set in 1945 Poland and is a story based on the journal writings of Dr. Madeleine Pauliac (renamed Mathilde in the movie). Dr. Pauliac, a medical lieutenant in the French Army, was appointed the the chief doctor in Warsaw and head of the French Red Cross during the end of World War II after Russia had taken control of the country.

We may be inured to all kinds of graphic violence in movies, this was different. Watching with the knowledge that these events actually took place was extremely difficult – nearly impossible.

Yet, sometimes it is necessary to watch appalling events in order that we might better understand our history, our faith, and even ourselves.

Mathilde encounters a young Polish nun who has escaped her convent in order to seek medical help for one of her novice sisters.  When Mathilde, a woman of no faith, finally agrees to go, she finds an unimaginable situation.

Months before her arrival, Russian soldiers had invaded the secluded Benedictine convent and repeatedly raped the nuns. As if that did not cause the nuns enough pain and shame, several of them are now pregnant. Mathilde is sworn to secrecy because of the Mother Superior’s fear that the scandal would destroy the convent, but she is permitted to return to help safely deliver the babies and care for the nuns.

There are so many beautiful themes in this film, but what kept my interest the most was the process of healing that the nuns went through as they came face-to-face with evil.

Though it was horrific to watch, it was also deeply moving and inspiring. Director Anne Fontaine did an incredible job of capturing the pain, emotions and stages of grief that this violence caused the nuns.  All of the women victimized had a different reaction to the atrocities they faced. Though they struggled and questioned God at times, they also endured their trials faithfully and (most of them) never abandoned their faith.

The Innocents is a must-see for anyone who ministers to or counsels others. Heavy, even excruciating, it sheds such poignant insight into the hearts of women of faith who have been violated, physically (and metaphysically).

The nuns’ anguish is highly personal, yes, but at the same time it is tragically common to the universal human experience, perhaps especially today.  Amidst the woundedness that is so rampant in modern society, our own communities, even in our families, there is something to gain here that really is best told in story-form… even a tragic, true story.

The Gospel and the Sacraments are not rewind buttons or erasers, but they are medicine for our wounded world. As the film demonstrates with aching nuance, the Church does not condescend to us in our agony with platitudes, and neither should we, as helpers, friends, counselors or ministers.

Healing hurts, all the more intensely from a rupture as profound as rape.

After watching The Innocents, you will have a deeper understanding of the questions of faith and feelings of unworthiness that rape victims may be struggling with. Let us be inspired by the strength of the women in The Innocents and remember to pray for all victims of sexual abuse.  

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