In an age of oversimplified political and social narratives, we may find refuge in stories that reflect the disturbing, conflicting aspects of living out our faith in the midst of a broken world. Recently released on DVD and streaming, Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents takes viewers into a place of sanctuary that has become a center of pain and confusion. In a state of desperation, the nuns find help from an unbeliever who must wrestle with their devout faith. This slow, emotionally complex film, may open our hearts afresh to the surprise of hope in the midst of despair.
The story opens on Mathilde Beaulieu, a young French Red Cross nurse, caring for patients in post-World War II Poland. A Polish nun breaks into her patient care with a desperate cry for help. Initially, Mathilde rebuffs the request and points the nun toward the Polish Red Cross. Hours later, she discovers the nun outside, waiting and praying for help. The non-believing Mathilde becomes the answer to her prayers and arrives at the convent just in time to perform an emergency caesarean. In the days that follow, Mathilde discovers that many of the nuns are pregnant after repeated violations by Soviet Soldiers. Several conflicts are in motion. These could be depicted through visuals, script, and a pace that enhances the sensational nature of the challenges. Instead, Fontaine relies on gentle, quiet shots and a measured pace to invite viewers into an extended reflection on suffering and survival.
Some of the questions woven throughout the story include: How does a cloistered convent face a problem that is bigger than any resources they have? What should they do with pregnant nuns and multiple babies that are arriving? Can faith speak to the confusion and suffering of the nuns? Mathilde enters the middle of this questioning anguish with her pragmatic, non-believing focus on caring for the physical needs at hand. The unbeliever appears as an answer to prayer. She comes as a grace gift to the people of God in need. In her, I see afresh the mystery of God’s grace at work in this world: blessing, sustaining, and meeting us in the light and the dark. He loves us and freely shares through the people and times of His choosing.
When serving the nuns, the unbelieving nurse does not remain untouched. She puzzles over the nuns’ devotion even after they have face unspeakable trauma. Mathilde engages Sister Maria and encounter a faith much deeper than shallow feel-goodism. Maria who converted after a life of hedonism explains her faith as “twenty-four hours of doubt for one minute of hope.” These words echo through me. Jean Pierre de Caussade, the traditional author of the eighteenth-century text Abandonment to Divine Providence, calls this perpetual darkness, “a life of pure faith.” Though I haven’t lived in this place of pure faith for my whole life, I have walked through seasons of extended darkness and doubt. In those lonely tunnels, I encountered glimmers of light as glorious moments of love.
Sister Maria and her fellow sisters have faced the ravaging evil of human corruption, and yet they still see the light of grace flickering along the path. They give Mathilde a deep and abiding hope even as Mathilde gives them her time and medical skills. At the heart of the film, we behold this exchange of love deepening and unfolding over time. Together they face greater horrors, but they also discover a way forward that will bring new hope and life to the convent. This promise of faith will follow Mathilde long after she leaves the nuns and returns to her life.
This mystery of this shared love between the unbeliever and the nuns speaks to our culture at this point in time. We eschew complex meditations on the confusion of sin and evil in the world, opting instead for simplistic reductions that create false dichotomies. People harden on different sides of an issue. The liberal-conservative divide stands at the forefront of our imaginations, but this divineness extends into the racial and/or national consciousness, varying approaches to worship and theology, and even forms of schooling. We often seem incapable of finding grace in the other. Yet, the freedom of God’s love so often comes to us in the other. I suggest that the The Innocents might offer a voice and vision of solace in this moment. This gentle story explores the complexity of moral and faith issues while also modeling the possibility for shared caring between differing groups.