Films with a theological bent never get far from the oldest question of theodicy: Why does a loving God allow his children to suffer? It’s the rare film that offers any nuance in its answer. In films that make the point that God can bring good out of evil, there is always a danger of becoming facile and condescending—an unexpected blessing proves that it was all for the best, and the evil wasn’t so bad to begin with. The Innocents, by contrast, offers evidence of healing and grace without downplaying the grief and trauma that preceded them. And it does this while addressing a moral blind spot of our popular culture.
The film, written and directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Anne Fontaine, is set in 1945 Poland and inspired by true events. It tells the story of a convent struggling with a secret: Many of the nuns are pregnant by rape after a harrowing occupation of the abbey by Russian soldiers. Against the Mother Superior's wishes, one nun recruits a French Red Cross nurse to help them. Though the nurse, Mathilde, is the film's viewpoint character, the nunnery as a whole is the film's protagonist, for the nuns must grow and change, respond to their trauma, and find a new way to live their vocations.
It’s a moving story, sometimes hard to watch but always beautifully shot. Nuns in dark habits running through snowy woods make for a moody Mise-en-scène. In starkly lit interior scenes, the women debate how to reconcile the injustices they have suffered with their faith in God—as well as the practical question of how to deliver babies safely with very limited resources. Thanks to Mathilde’s medical heroism, the nuns get to meet and even begin to bond with their sons and daughters. Sister Maria tries to convince Mathilde, child of godless Communists, that Mathilde herself is an instrument of God’s mercy.
Meanwhile, the Mother Superior distrusts the nurse. Fearful that the sisters’ pregnancies will come to light and their home be destroyed, she undertakes a horrifying course of action. (Spoiler-phobes, consider this your warning.) Mother Superior has been abandoning babies by the wayside, and lying to the nuns that she found adoptive families. She has given in to the temptation of sin-eating: “I damned myself to save you.” Her despair leads her to view some of God’s creatures as dispensable: the inconvenient babies, and her own soul.
Mathilde and Sister Maria uncover the truth (though not until the infanticides have produced devastating consequences at the nunnery) and then find a different solution—one that not only saves the remaining babies but also spills over to help others in need. The nunnery will take in the orphans of a nearby war-stricken town, and the nuns will be able to raise their own children alongside these without causing scandal. By treating the babies not just as sources of fear but as calls to love, the nuns renew their devotion and create a new community.
It’s hard to walk out of the theater dry-eyed. The catharsis accompanies a subtle theological insight: God can bring great good out of terrible evil. Nonetheless, the evil was evil—we can’t, like Mother Superior, do evil that good may come of it. The rapes were true acts of depravity and yet the babies are true blessings. Bad does not “wash out” good, nor vice versa, as sophomoric pessimism or chirpy optimism might hold. The film gives the nuns room both to grieve the injury done them and, eventually, to rejoice in motherhood. Theirs is the way of the Cross and the Resurrection.
It’s heartening to find this message in such a well-made film, especially because of the profound empathy the filmmakers display throughout, with both the struggling nuns and their newborn babies: All are the innocents of the title. This runs counter to a troubling trend in our culture—the equation of children of rape with monsters. Through a kind of moral absurdism, children of rape are seen to be somehow abettors of their fathers’ crimes, not further victims. Both sides of abortion policy-making often write off unborn children of rape as obviously “fair game.”
Two critically acclaimed television shows have embraced this trope of “conceived in rape” as a shorthand for “monstrous.” Game of Thrones, in its most recent two seasons, painted upstart bastard Ramsay Bolton as an utterly irredeemable figure (while giving him much more prominence than his counterpart in the books has). We are pointedly reminded that the young man is the product of his lord father’s assault on a peasant woman, with the unsavory suggestion that Ramsay’s evil is somehow inborn since he is the product of rape.
Netflix’s noir-ish superhero show Jessica Jones does something similar in the middle of its first season: The villain Kilgrave has a child by rape, and when the child's mother calls it a “monster,” the titular heroine does not protest and helps procure drugs to abort it. This is a disturbing moment in a series that ordinarily shows concern for the humanity of the downtrodden. Jessica Jones is an ex-superhero working as a private investigator to track down her former abuser, the psychotic psychic Kilgrave. Treating people as objects, denying their humanity, is Kilgrave's M.O. The showrunners don’t seem to realize that Jessica’s attitude towards Kilgrave’s offspring is similarly dehumanizing.
Both shows are ready to see an innocent child as tainted irreversibly by its father's crime—a superstitious and inhumane view that, fortunately, has no place in The Innocents. Anne Fontaine's is a work of greater moral realism. The closing image of the film shows the nuns gathered for a photo, surrounded by orphans and cradling their children in their arms. The children have inherited no sin but Adam’s, and from him they also have our common human dignity. To their mothers and their community, they offer opportunities to give care and receive love. When they grow up—when children of brokenness today grow up—will they find stories wherein they are heroes and not monsters?
Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.