Director: Anne Fontaine
Runtime: 115 minutes
Regardless of a story’s basis in reality, a film still has a duty to make sure “real events” stand on their own. All too often, films that proudly proclaim that they’re “based on actual/true events” use reality as a crutch. They live solely on their connection to reality, often forgoing legitimate drama. This is most often the case when it comes to biopics, particularly those that chart a notable figure from cradle to grave. “All of this stuff happened, isn’t that something?” Well, sure it is, but how that stuff gets presented still matters. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically more compelling.
For an example of “based on true events” filmmaking done right, one need look no further than Anne Fontaine’s exquisite The Innocents. First released in the US in the spring, the film is finally available to rent, own, or stream. Be warned, however. Watching this one on a laptop or TV (even a big one) will have you kicking yourself for missing out on seeing it in a theater.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, The Innocents opens with a group of Polish nuns singing hymns. Despite the ravages of war, the nuns’ rituals open the story in a moment of prayerful serenity. Everything is business as usual…almost. A far off scream punctures the atmosphere, at least for one member of the faithful, and she scurries away to a different part of the monastery. Turns out, one of her fellow Brides of Christ is in labor. Not long after, the monastery enlists the help of Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French doctor stationed in town, who soon discovers that the situation extends beyond this one incident.
The story presents plenty of opportunities for one-sided lecturing, but Fontaine avoids the temptation at every turn. Rather than set up science vs. faith debates, the screenplay forgoes contrived clashes and allows characters to reveal their ideologies with mesmerizing restraint. Some of the justifications for the nuns’ actions and beliefs may seem absurd, but Fontaine refuses to condescend. Mathilde, thanks to de Laage’s lovely performance, is there to help, even when that means acquiescing to the sisters’ faith or making compromises with it.
Faith-based films tend to fall into two categories: simplistic endorsements of religion, and scathing indictments. The Innocents, however, finds a beautiful middle ground, similar to the way last year’s Spotlight did. It points out hypocrisies, and subtly challenges them, but never tries to show off. Faith matters to many of the women on screen, so it matters to the film as a whole. Despite the presence of some standard-issue Catholic guilt, the film is filled with surprising nuance.
This is echoed in everything from the performances, which are uniformly excellent without pulling focus from the larger storytelling concerns. Mathilde could have easily been pushed front and center as a traditional hero, but Fontaine keeps the story’s perspective community-oriented. The French doctor is integral, but she can leave the screen for significant periods of time without leaving the film adrift. Some of the nuns aren’t terribly complex, defined more by their situation than their personality, but the handful Fontaine zeroes in on are magnetic to watch. Agata Kulesza’s (the alcoholic aunt in the Oscar-winning Ida) stern mother superior is a brilliant combination of conflicted faith and self-aggrandizing martyrdom. Her subordinate, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), led a previous life as party girl with several lovers. Whether sharing a scene or operating separately, these two characters are masterfully composed studies in subtle contrasts. Buzek, in particular, is a revelation as she peels back the layers of Maria’s past and present lives.
And even with such loaded material, Fontaine is able to inject a surprising amount of energy into the narrative without going overboard. The camera often gently moves across and around the actors, adding movement to what could have been a flat, heavy handed experience. Rather than leave all the heavy lifting to the actors, Fontaine does a remarkable job of framing and positioning her actors in the minimalist sets cradled in pale winter light. There are dozens and dozens of shots that have the attention to placement of a Vermeer painting, albeit one with a chillier color scheme.
Every facet of The Innocents is so thoughtful, and so gorgeously rendered that, by the time the end titles appeared, the fact that this was based on a true story was the least interesting part of the whole enterprise. Rather than let truth get in the way, The Innocents uses factual basis as a springboard to not merely recount a story, but to dramatize it with a haunting beauty that makes it all actually worth telling.