Film notes: Innocence robbed and redeemed

Film notes: Innocence robbed and redeemed

By Daniel Grippo

The story line of The Innocents involves a doctor (left) who is called in to assist with the deliveries of several nuns who have been raped. Sister Maria (right) leads the community through what may be its greatest challenge.

THE INNOCENTS (Les Innocentes, 2016, French/Polish with English subtitles, also released as Agnus Dei) is a complex, brooding story that takes place in an austere Benedictine convent shortly after the close of World War II. Set against the backdrop of a wintry Polish countryside ravaged by the war, the movie brings into sharp relief questions we all navigate in our lives, but the stakes are much higher here—life and death literally hang in the balance. Questions of faith and doubt, courage and risk, silence and shame—ultimately, of salvation and damnation—are in play. There may seem to be little room for joy or hope in the bleak landscape, but the movie does lead to a redemptive conclusion even if, in the words of one of the beleaguered nuns, “behind all joy lies the cross.”

The film is based on the little-publicized true story of a French Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac (“Dr. Mathilde” in the movie, played by Lou de Laâge), who is approached by a novice who begs, then insists—to the point of kneeling in prayer in the snow for hours—that Mathilde attend to a medical emergency at a nearby convent of Polish nuns. Dr. Mathilde finds herself delivering a child to a pregnant nun as a closely held secret slowly comes to light: the convent, which survived great privations during the wartime German occupation of Poland, was overrun by advancing Russian troops at the end of the war and many of the sisters were brutally, repeatedly raped.

Seven of the sisters are now pregnant, and with their condition shrouded in a shame and secrecy insisted upon by their stern Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza), Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) has the courage to allow the doctor to help. Now that Dr. Mathilde knows their secret and sees their dire need for maternal care, she defies the orders of her medical superiors and secretly cares for the pregnant nuns, seeing them through labor and delivery of their babies.

Reverend Mother has promised her sisters that the newborns will be discreetly given up for adoption, but when what she has done with one of the newborns comes to light, the shocking news shakes the convent to its core. The ensuing fallout serves as a testament to the damage caused by secrecy and sexual shame—a timely theme for a church still struggling with these concerns.  

Portraits of courage

Young Sister Maria provides a refreshing counterpoint to the shame-based Reverend Mother. Compassionate and worldly wise despite her youth, Sister Maria offers a model for a modern vocation—someone who lived in the world before she entered religious life and has integrated the two in a healthy, life affirming way.

Her vocation is strong because she is not running away from the world but rather freely serving the world through religious life. The strength of her faith and her willingness to stand up for her sisters offers an inspiring portrait of religious courage in a time of danger and persecution.

Dr. Mathilde displays remarkable courage as well, putting her life and her career on the line to attend to the nuns. The fact that she was raised a Communist and is sleeping with a coworker who helps her in her work with the nuns—a French doctor of Jewish heritage, now an atheist after losing his family to the Holocaust—creates a context in which heroism and holiness can no longer be narrowly defined by orthodoxy.

The Innocents is a respectful meditation on the faith of the nuns and also on the bravery of those who do not share their faith but also act courageously from shared values. As such, the movie offers a helpful point of departure for a discussion about vocation and ministry in a diverse world of widely divergent values and lifestyles. The message is subtle but unmistakable: beware a righteous attitude of moral superiority, it can be used to justify the most horrendous of crimes.  

Reverend Mother ends up destroying herself by giving far too much weight to secrecy in her bid to save the convent. But have her actions really contributed to anyone’s salvation? In raising the question, the movie serves as a launching pad to discuss important questions with those in vocation formation: how do you understand redemption and damnation, and how does your understanding motivate your life choices?

One of the nuns who has given birth decides, after much personal reflection and struggle, that she will take her newborn and leave the convent to join the world as a single mother. “I will live out my vocation in a different way but I will never forget what you have done for us” she says to Sister Maria. This story line provides a good starting point for a discussion of the many ways we can live out our vocation and serve God and one another.

For her part, Dr. Mathilde is forever changed by her encounter with the nuns, learning to admire their courage and fortitude and the strength of their faith. Her own vocation to serve the world as a doctor is thereby also fulfilled. The film demonstrates that God does indeed work through all of us, regardless of background or lifestyle. Our task is to search deeply for that point where, as Frederick Buechner said: “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The nuns who have survived these tribulations forge a special bond born of the trials they have shared, and this bond brings redemption to the convent as the film ends on a warm and joyful note. Thomas Merton once said, “In the end, relationships save everything.” This insight may be yet another valuable point of departure for reflection on the surpassing importance to a healthy religious vocation of close personal bonds with community members and friends. None of us serves alone, all of us need each other.

Hope and horror coexist at every turn in The Innocents—as they do in the world we live in every day. For that reason, The Innocents is anything but innocent—it offers a mature, clear-eyed perspective on the great harm we are capable of doing to one another, but also on the great good that is possible when we act with courage and faith in the most difficult of circumstances.

“Faith is 24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope,” says one particularly wise nun at a dark moment in the story. As young men and women consider a religious vocation today they likely will find that these words speak to the questions and doubts in their own hearts. To realize that there is no faith without doubt is perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn in life. This film delivers that lesson in vivid and dramatic fashion.


Daniel Grippo is a spirituality author and editor and cofounder of TrueQuest Communications, which publishes HORIZON and VISION Vocation Guide for the National Religious Vocation Conference. He can be reached at


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