The Innocents (French: Les Innocentes), also known as Agnus Dei, is a 2016 French film directed by Anne Fontaine, which features Lou de Laâge, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek and Vincent Macaigne in its cast.
The script is by Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine and Alice Vial, after an original idea by Philippe Maynial.
Maynial took inspiration from the experiences of his aunt, Madeleine Pauliac, a French Red Cross doctor who worked in Poland after World War II, dealing with the aftermath of mass rapes by Soviet soldiers.
In Warsaw, December 1945, a nun known as Sister Teresa approaches a young French female student doctor, Mathilde Beaulieu, serving with an army unit. She says there are sick women in need and is not satisfied with a referral to the Polish Red Cross.
Beaulieu decides to go at night to the nun’s convent, where one woman has given birth. The Mother Superior tells her that the nun was thrown out by her family and was taken in out of charity. Beaulieu tells the Mother Superior (Abbess) that she works for the French Red Cross.
A novice nun at the convent is grieving the death of another nun. Confined to her cell, she engages in morning prayer.
Later the Abbess discloses to Beaulieu that several nuns at the convent were raped by Russian soldiers, relating that the experience was nightmarish, and they wish to keep this a secret. Seven of the nuns are pregnant. Some of the pregnant nuns are reluctant to be examined intimately by the doctor, believing this will violate their vow of chastity. One of the nuns confesses to Mother Superior that her faith has been deeply shaken by these events.
Soldiers come to the convent believing the nuns are harbouring an enemy soldier. However, Beaulieu convinces them she is there to deal with an emergency outbreak of typhus. The Mother Superior is badly shaken by the threat of the soldiers, and thanks the doctor for her presence of mind. Beaulieu realises that she too was raped. The Mistress of Novices, Sister Maria, tells the doctor that every day she is reminded of these harsh events. She relates how faith has become more difficult for her but it is the cross she bears.
When Beaulieu returns to headquarters, her boss chastises her for having been away without leave. He says that the military is a place of order and discipline.
At a later visit at the convent, Beaulieu is present when another novice nun gives birth unexpectedly. This nun had not realized she was pregnant, and does not seem to know she has given birth. The Abbess had given orders that she be notified of all births, but Beaulieu requests that she not be notified immediately. The doctor needs to focus on care for the newborn. A different nun, Sister Zofia, takes responsibility for the child.
Beaulieu asks the Mistress of Novices if she ever regrets her life as a nun. The novice replies, “Faith is 24 hours of doubt with one minute of hope”, going on to describe her difficulties with the practice.
Beaulieu returns to the army medical unit, and discovers the unit is going to be transferred out of the area.
Several nuns are about to give birth at once. Beaulieu returns to the convent with a male Jewish colleague. She assures the nuns that he will keep their secret. The doctor visits the baby whose existence has been kept secret from the Abbess. The Mistress of Novices plans to take the baby to Zofia’s family, but the baby is discovered by the abbess. The Abbess is upset that she was lied to and tells the Mistress of Novices that she has been corrupted by “that French woman”, who has brought scandal and disorder to the convent. The Mistress of Novices replies, “Forgive me, but scandal and disorder were already here”.
The Mother Superior has been telling everyone that she takes the babies to families who have agreed to adopt, but she abandons this baby in front of a crucifix on a country walking path, after baptising it. Zofia is distraught, knowing the child is missing. The Mother Superior privately prays that she have the courage to continue on the path she has chosen. Meanwhile, Sister Zofia commits suicide by jumping from an upper ledge, dying shortly after her wounded body is discovered.
When the Mistress of Novices goes to Zofia’s family to report her death, she discovers that Zofia’s aunt never knew Zofia had a child, nor that she had been caring for another baby. The Mistress of Novices decides to not tell the aunt the truth. This is the Mistress of Novices’ first realisation that the Abbess has been dishonest about the fate of the babies. She confronts the Abbess demanding the truth. She says she entrusted the child to God, saying “Don’t you believe in Providence?”
At the medical base, Mathilde Beaulieu is getting ready to finally leave the area. The Mistress of Novices brings three babies to the base to protect them from the Abbess. Beaulieu notices that many orphans living on the street have been helping personnel at the base from time to time. It occurs to her that the nuns could start raising many of these children and open an orphanage, thus avoiding questions about where the babies are coming from. One of the nuns decides to leave the convent and raise her own child, and another decides to leave, but allow her baby to be raised by the nuns.
The final scene is three months later, with a photographer at the convent taking pictures of the nuns and happy orphans.
- Lou de Laâge as Mathilde Beaulieu.
- Agata Buzek as Sister Maria.
- Agata Kulesza as Mother Superior.
- Vincent Macaigne as Samuel.
- Joanna Kulig as Sister Irena.
- Katarzyna Dąbrowska as Sister Anna.
- Thomas Coumans as Gaspard.
- Eliza Rycembel as Teresa.
- Anna Próchniak as Zofia.
- Pascal Elso as The colonel.
The film is a French-Polish-Belgian co-production that was supported by the Polish Film Institute and the Film Commission Poland. Principal photography began on 13 January 2015 in the Warmia region in Poland, and lasted for seven weeks.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016.
- In some countries the film is titled Agnus Dei (Latin for “God’s lamb”, or “lamb of God”, from the Mass liturgy).
- Director Anne Fontaine went on two retreats in Benedictine communities in preparation for the film, first as an observer and second as a novice.
- Anne Fontaine originally met with Agata Kulesza in Poland because she was an admirer of her work, but told her that she didn’t wish to cast her as the Mother Superior since she thought her too sexy for the role.
- The actress laughed and asked the director if she could put on a veil and read an extract for a Polish work.
- Once she did, Fontaine decided to give her the part.
- Based on the true story of Madeleine Pauliac, renamed Mathilde Beaulieu in the film, during her time working as a doctor in Poland.
- The story was brought to the attention of producers by Pauliac’s nephew, Philippe Maynial, who had her diary.
Production & Filming Details
- Anne Fontaine.
- Eric Altmayer … producer.
- Nicolas Altmayer … producer.
- Philippe Carcassonne … associate producer.
- Isabelle Grellat … associate producer (as Isabelle Grellat Doublet).
- Genevieve Lemal … co-producer.
- Eliza Oczkowska … co-producer.
- Klaudia Smieja … co-producer.
- Alain-Gilles Viellevoye … financier.
- Sabrina B. Karine … (scenario).
- Alice Vial … (scenario).
- Anne Fontaine … (adaptation).
- Pascal Bonitzer … (adaptation).
- Philippe Maynial … (based on an original concept created by).
- Grégoire Hetzel.
- Caroline Champetier.
- Annette Dutertre.
- Mandarin Films (co-production) (presents) (as Mandarin Cinéma).
- Aeroplan Film (co-production).
- France 2 Cinéma (co-production).
- Mars Films (co-production).
- Scope Pictures (co-production).
- NC+ (co-production).
- Sofica Manon 5 (in association with).
- Cofinova 11 (in association with).
- La Banque Postale Image 8 (in association with).
- A Plus Image 6 (in association with).
- Cinémage 9 (in association with).
- Canal+ (participation).
- Ciné+ (participation).
- France Télévisions (participation).
- Playtime (in association with) (as Films Distribution).
- Kino Swiat (in association with).
- Eurimages (support).
- Polish Film Institute (support).
- Mars Distribution (2016) (France) (theatrical).
- Picturehouse Entertainment (2016) (UK) (theatrical) (subtitled).
- Good Films (2016) (Italy) (theatrical).
- Music Box Films (2016) (USA) (theatrical) (subtitled).
- CDI Films (2016) (Argentina) (theatrical).
- Mares Filmes (2016) (Brazil) (theatrical).
- Thimfilm Filmverleih (2017) (Austria) (theatrical).
- Longride (2017) (Japan) (theatrical).
- Feelgood Entertainment (2017) (Greece) (theatrical).
- Rialto Distribution (2017) (Australia) (theatrical).
- ARTE (2021) (Germany) (TV).
- ARTE (2021) (France) (TV).
- Another World Entertainment (2017) (Denmark) (DVD).
- Longride (2018) (Japan) (DVD).
- New Select (I) (2018) (Japan) (DVD).
- Playtime (2016) (World-wide) (all media).
- Reel Corporation (2017) (Australia) (DVD).
- Reel DVD (2017) (Australia) (DVD).
- Release Date: 26 January 2016 (Sundance Film Festival).
- Running Time: 115 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: France.
- Language: French and English (subtitles).