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The Schmooze

Interview With Anne Fontaine, Director Of ‘The Innocents’

“The Innocents” is a riveting film inspired by a little-known true event that occurred in Poland in 1945. According to notes taken by a French Red Cross doctor, 25 nuns had been raped by Soviet soldiers—some as many as 40 times. Twenty had been killed. Of the survivors—five became pregnant. This remarkable Polish-French film (with excellent English subtitles) has as its central character a gutsy French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage) who is stealthily brought into the cloistered convent by Maria, a novice nun luminously portrayed by Agata Buzek who dares to defy the rigidly unforgiving Benedictine Mother Superior (stellar Polish actress Agata Kulesza “Ida”). Confronted with the convent’s secret—the spectacle of nuns in labor —Mathilde then seeks the help of Samuel—a Jewish doctor— (Vincent Macaigne) who is smuggled into the convent and helps set up a “maternity ward.”

ML: How was the film received by the church?

AF: The reaction of the church was very positive—in France, in Rome—in the Vatican—it was a terrific movie for the church. In Poland… it was more complicated with the Catholic Church…there were some priests…nuns [who liked it). In Russia—No! The only country that did not buy the film!

ML: I rarely cry at movies—-but this one simply overwhelmed me. The otherworldly setting in the forest…. What was the reaction of the actresses to portraying nuns whose habits hid pregnancies, then one-by-one-go into labor…and then have to confront their maternal instincts when holding their beautiful babies?

AF: They were deeply prepared by rehearsals…wonderful Polish actresses…I was raised Catholic until 14. I believe in life and love…. [there can be] a life without religion—something happens between human beings a way to survive.

ML: But what about the nuns?

AF: They have doubts…sometimes they lost their faith…they make a choice to go outside the monastery…this way [there is] a meeting of two worlds…. The French doctor who thinks action is enough is transformed. Everybody who saw it in the cinema in America in France, at the end all their eyes were with tears—they were shocked…. When you see the situation of women who had no sexual relationship in front of something [for which] they were not prepared—rape! so amazing, so intense, their reaction to motherhood is stronger than anything in life…. To see the babies in the convent is surprising!

ML: Then there’s the impact of the French doctor…. the nuns are now mothers…. The maternal camaraderie of the nuns.

AF: The idea of two women together…the step-by-step revolutionary [action] with this situation—-disobeying the Mother Superior… this character [who] changed the rules…. was more important than conformism…

ML: I felt gratified by the vignette of the French doctor who arrived accompanied by the Jewish doctor coming to help—in what has become a monastery maternity ward— announcing with a wry smiled: “Yes! I’m one of them—-still alive!.” As to the fate of the babies.

The film opens July 1 in New York (Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelica Film Center) and Los Angeles. Bring a packet of Kleenex.

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