The Innocents (12A, 100 mins, ★★★★)

Set mainly in a Polish convent in 1945 and loosely based on a true story, The Innocents is austerely and beautifully shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Of Gods and Men) in a palette dominated by black, white and grey. Morally, too, it is full of shadows: secrets and shame, profound trauma and the quiet struggle for survival.

The film begins with the mysterious sound of a woman howling from deep in the convent as the nuns are at prayer, a howl that triggers an unauthorised dash by a novice to find a doctor who is neither Polish nor Russian.

A young woman from the French Red Cross, Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) reluctantly answers the plea – at great personal risk – and discovers the secret that the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) is hiding. Months before, the convent was attacked by Red Army soldiers, and the nuns subjected to multiple rapes. Seven are now on the verge of giving birth, and the Mother Superior eventually agrees that Mathilde can return to assist with their labours, provided she tells no one.

The director Anne Fontaine conveys an era of terrible and chaotic drama in a compellingly understated style. The wider landscape remains unpredictable – the nuns still live in acute fear of Russian soldiers – and atrocities are fresh in the mind. The steep cost exacted by the war is borne by various characters in different ways: Mathilde’s co-worker and lover Samuel, for example, is a Jewish doctor who lost his parents in Bergen-Belsen.

Yet the story concentrates most closely on the dilemmas endured by the nuns, whose extreme modesty and vows of chastity are complicating factors in the shock of impending motherhood as a result of rape.

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