Poland, December 1945: the second World War is over and Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a doctor with the French Red Cross, is busy treating the last of the French survivors of the German camps. Meanwhile not too far away at their convent, austere Benedictine nuns sing sweetly in the quiet stillness of morning—until a piercing scream echoes through the stone hallways. Turns out, it’s coming from an extremely pregnant, young nun who’s on the verge of giving birth—and she’s not alone.
One of the more daring sisters dashes into town to fetch a doctor, trekking through forest trails and war-torn streets, and the dusting of snow that accumulates on the hem of her habit leaves a vivid impression of cold and isolation. The no-nonsense Mathilde initially is reluctant to leave her busy post to help. But once she arrives at the convent, she’s shocked to discover that at least a half-dozen young nuns also are in advanced stages of pregnancy. A non-believer, Mathilde enters the sisters’ fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order. As the Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza) and her right-hand woman Maria (Agata Buzek) matter-of-factly explain it, Soviet soldiers invaded the convent and repeatedly raped the women as the war was ending. Worried mostly about the hostility of the new anti-Catholic government, the Reverend Mother views these pregnancies as a source of great shame and is far less concerned about the psychological trauma these women must be experiencing. As she grudgingly agrees to let Mathilde assist with the deliveries and after care, she insists the births must remain a secret, and promises to arrange adoptive homes for all the newborns. Facing an unprecedented crisis of faith, the nuns increasingly turn to Mathilde as their belief and traditions clash with harsh realities. The director Anne Fontaine, her cinematographer Caroline Champetier and editor Annette Dutertre show great sensitivity and skill in their handling of this devastating story and the issues it raises. This rare film examines the nature of religious belief in a nearly non-judgmental way; it’s more about strong, brave women protecting each other and doing what they must to survive. A welcome change: a war movie by women, about women. In French, Polish, and Russian with subtitles.
(France/Poland/ 2015 / Directed by Anne Fontaine)
PG-13/ 115 mins.