In case you thought I wasn’t awful, my response to one of our great theater employees as to “How was it?” was: “Well, for a movie about nun-raping, there aren’t as many laughs as you might expect.”
I said I was awful, didn’t I? I mean, not awful enough to rape nuns, unlike the Russian soldiers “liberating” Poland, but awful enough to joke about it. Well, not really, just awful enough to joke about a movie made 70 years after the fact. (Man, you should hear me riff on the Wreck of the Hesperus.)
The plot here is that a young French doctor on a post-war mission to help (French) soldiers to facilitate pulling out of Poland (and ceding it to the Soviets) finds herself roped into helping nuns in a nearby-but-not-too-nearby convent who are in the late stages of pregnancy. It is, of course, damned awkward to have a convent full of pregnant nuns, and the Poles (and not just the Poles, of course), I guess, were backward enough for this to be a survival problem for the nuns.
So, all the pregnancies have to be hidden and the children all skirted away to foster parents as soon as they’re born.
This creates a problem for our lovely, liberated doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge who, at 26, fits very nicely into her role as a doctor) since she is barely accepted in the first place, and she is not allowed to tell anyone where she is disappearing to in the middle of the night. It also creates a bit of friction between her and her man-of-the-moment, a Jewish doctor named Samuel (Vincent Macaigne). It’s a cringe-worthy moment for all of us when he snarls that the Poles deserve their brutal treatment at the hands of the Soviets (see Aftermath for another take on what the Polish might deserve.).
We don’t really know Mathilde’s opinions on that, generally, for she is not a political creature. Surely she can relate to the nun’s situation better than most, given that she must elude the wolfish Soviet patrols in order to get to the nunnery, and there’s little doubt what they would do to a pretty French girl alone.
Things start to heat up when it’s clear that more than one of the nuns may go into labor at once, and when the French detachment learns that its time in Poland is very limited. To say nothing of the complications of when the babies start arriving and the nuns, if given a chance, are inclined to become quickly attached to them. The concerned Mother Superior ends up seeming brutally callous in her attempt to keep this from happening, often to horrible effect.
So, here’s the thing: This is obviously a dark topic, a subject matter one doesn’t like to contemplate, and just as obviously, this movie isn’t a fun family romp. At the same time, the treatment of the topic matters greatly. This movie worked for me because, no matter how dark the happenings got, the movie itself didn’t endorse or celebrate nihilism. There are monsters here, no doubt, but the movie doesn’t endorse a worldview of “well, what’s the point of anything with all these monsters around?”
Anne Fontaine (writer/director of Gemma Bovary and Coco Before Chanel) directs a script she co-wrote (along with a suspicious number of other people), and gives us a clean, tight drama that’s expertly paced. And with cinematographer Caroline Champetier (The Last of the Unjust, Hannah Arendt), we get a lot of noteworthy visuals to boot.
If you see only one movie about nun-raping this year…no, wait, that’s a terrible recommendation. In truth, it’s a sensitive, mature handling (way more mature than I am, clearly) of a difficult subject that isn’t designed to make you feel awful about life and humanity. Well, worth seeing.