Director Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents takes one of cinema’s most frequently depicted historical events and completely subverts audience expectations. World War II films are typically a showcase for masculine honor and depict epic battles or tell heart-wrenching love stories. There are exceptions, to be sure. But it is rare for a film to hammer out as original a pathway as Fontaine does on such a familiar map. This is a movie about brave, flawed women fighting a nearly silent battle, and the only love story here is one of sisterhood.

Based on the story of Madeleine Pauliac, the film begins in Warsaw at the end of the war in December, 1945. Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a young French Red Cross doctor, is treating the last of the French survivors of the German camps. A desperate Polish nun rushes into the dispensary and convinces Mathilde to come to her convent, where she discovers a number of scared, pregnant nuns. It’s soon revealed that the sisters had been raped by Russian troops who had supposedly come to their rescue. Mathilde commits herself to helping them as much as she can, though the very private nuns fear the spiritual and societal consequences of exposure.

Had the film concentrated on Mathilde’s story, it might have come across as a tone-deaf depiction of a sophisticated French woman rescuing a group of uneducated Polish nuns. Yet Fontaine smartly devotes time to Mathilde and Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), her main contact at the convent. The director is aided by incredible performances by de Laâge, who resembles a young Angeline Jolie in both appearance and comportment, and Buzek, whose Maria slowly emerges as the film’s heart. Also of note is Agata Kulesza (as good here as she was in the outstanding Ida) as the stern Mother Abbess who reluctantly allows the outsider Mathilde into the world of the convent.

The Innocents convincingly portrays a desperately underexplored subject in film: the spiritual crises of women. Fontaine went on two retreats with Benedictine nuns to prepare for the film, and the result is a convincing portrayal of convent life. Her film is one of the most spiritually complex films of the year, alongside The Witch, which is likewise a wonderful exploration of women of faith.

Fontaine’s previous films, like Coco before Chanel and Adore have been beautiful but opaque, keeping characters at a distance. That opacity is missing from The Innocents, and Fontaine allows even the smallest of her characters to leave an impression. Her new film is quite beautiful as well, with the help of Katarzyna Lewinska’s costumes and Caroline Champetier’s cinematography.

The movie rolls along slowly but remains gripping and unpredictable until the end. Conflicts that may be expected never transpire, while characters who seem to be good people do terrible things, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the ending abandons this subversion and wraps up a bit too neatly.

Its tidy conclusion aside, The Innocents is a satisfying, thought-provoking film. Though based on a true story, it feels like an original work, and it mines feelings of hope, joy and even humor out of a horribly bleak setting. Most significantly, it’s a war movie by and about women, which is something that is all too rare.

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