'Agnus Dei' ('Les innocentes'): Sundance Review

Agnus Dei still 1- H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A diffuse historical film that never digs very deep.

French director Anne Fontaine ('Two Mothers') returns to Sundance with a pregnant-nuns film inspired by a true story.

Not since Penelope Cruz finally grabbed the international spotlight in Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother has there been a film that takes pregnant nuns as seriously as French-Polish co-production Agnus Dei (Les innocentes). This drama, inspired by a true story, looks at a young female French Red Cross worker in immediate postwar Poland who stumbles upon a convent where several nuns, earlier raped by Soviet "liberators," are now in the last stages of their pregnancies.

Directed by French director Anne Fontaine (Two Mothers/Adore, Coco Before Channel), this is another gorgeously appointed but also slightly overly formal film, with a muted emotional payoff that, while appropriate for the story’s convent setting, doesn’t exactly make for must-see cinema. That said, the admittedly reductive label of "true-story pregnant nuns movie" might be a useful first marketing hook, while au courant arthouse patrons should be further intrigued by the fact that the stern — is there any other kind? — Mother Superior is played by Agata Kulesza, whose not-at-all saintly Red Wanda in the equally nuns-heavy Ida, the recent Polish Oscar winner, was an unforgettable character.

Lou de Laage, the breakout from Melanie Laurent’s Breathe, is Mathilde, a conscientious nurse with the French Red Cross stationed in Poland right after the war and looking after wounded Frenchies hoping to go home. Her life changes when a Polish nun comes to ask for her help and won’t take no for an answer, which leads to a visit to a nearby nunnery under the cover of night (Mathilde is theoretically not allowed to treat anyone but French citizens).

What she discovers there, in piecemeal fashion because initially the religieuses are understandably very reticent about revealing the extent of their supposedly sinful troubles to an outsider, is that a handful of visits from despicably acting Soviets have left six nuns and a novice pregnant. Not surprisingly, these Brides of Christ haven’t the faintest idea about the medical intricacies surrounding either pregnancies or childbirth.

Like the audience, Mathilde enters into a largely unfamiliar world and tries to find her bearings there. Since the nurse speaks next to no Polish, most of the communication passes via the kind Sister Maria (Agata Buzek, mesmerizing) and the uncompromising Mother Superior (Kulesza), the only two in the convent who speak the language of Moliere.   

The film’s story is credited to Philippe Maynial, the screenplay to Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Via and the writer-director and Pascal Bonitzer, who also helped adapt her previous film, Gemma Bovery, are credited with the adaptation and dialogues. The fact so many have worked on the screenplay might explain why the film’s focus feels somewhat diffuse: Is Agnus Dei a story about a Frenchwoman trying to do what she can in extraordinary circumstances — surely, when she left France, she didn’t expect to ever have to perform a C-section on a nun, a feature about seven pregnant sisters or a film about an entire convent and, by extension, an entire nation trying to deal with the horror, shame and practicalities attached to the complex spiritual and physical aftermath of a brutal invasion of their very beings?

The finished film contains a little of all three but with the narrative lurching from one to the other, sometimes within a single scene, without ever really finding its own groove. The character of Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a French-Jewish doctor whose family died in the camps and who seems to be Mathilde’s superior in the film — the real "Mathilde," Madeleine Pauliac, was actually Chief Doctor of the Warsaw French Hospital — is emblematic of the film’s torn loyalties. His character seems to have been created to counterbalance the idea that all Poles were saintly during WWII (also a theme of Ida) but he’s also meant to work as a love interest for Mathilde and also, with his fumbling attempts at making conversation and wooing her, the film’s main source of comic relief. But with the limited screen time he’s given and Fontaine’s unsteady command of tone, Samuel never develops into more than a bearded heap of contradictions in army uniform. The fact the film doesn’t always consider how his presence and actions might tie into the film’s main themes and ideas is suggestive of its sloppy scripting; when Mathilde and Samuel end up sleeping together, there’s a conspicuous missed opportunity to talk about the general difficulty of contraception for women in 1945, which would have provided a fascinating contrast with the unorthodox situation in the nunnery.

Things work better when Agnus Dei stays within the crumbling convent walls, where a strong ensemble projects an air of female solidarity in tough times, even if the film never manages to decide whether it’s a more tightly focused character study about the three French-speaking leads (all terrific, with Kulesza unfortunately saddled with the most two-dimensional role) or a wider group portrait or an exploration of a (part of) society at a certain point in history (Ida gloriously managed to continuously be both). Beyond screen-time issues, the fact all the nuns wear identical garments doesn’t help in giving them individual personalities and there’s also little sense of how the non-pregnant nuns feel about the entire situation. Though there's some talk of spiritual crisis, the conversations about God and religion, sin and shame never dig particularly deep and feel diffuse as well.

As played with steely determination by the charismatic De Laage, Mathilde is an independent and rather modern-feeling creation with nominal communist sympathies and no manifest interest in religion. But beyond compassion and a sense of loyal duty to her professional oath, Fontaine doesn’t manage to suggest how this fascinating woman really feels about the sisters and their plight or whether the needle has moved in terms of her sympathy for either Commie ideology — the rapists were Soviets, after all — or her feelings or lack thereof about God.

What thus remains is a film that looks painterly — ace cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s milky lights often recalls Baroque painters from the Low Countries — and features solid performances but which lacks a key that would unlock the emotional, spiritual and ideological mysteries that hide behind this unfocused retelling of the facts.  

Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Aeroplan Film, Mars Film

Cast: Lou De Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Anna Prochniak, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Helena Sujecka, Dorota Kuduk, Klara Bielawka, Mira Maludzinska

Director: Anne Fontaine

Screenplay: Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Philippe Maynial

Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer

Co-producers: Eliza Oczkowska, Klaudia Smieja

Director of photography: Caroline Champetier

Production designer: Joanna Macha

Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska

Editor: Annette Dutertre

Music: Gregoire Hetzel

Casting: Weronika Migon, Pascale Beraud

Sales: Films Distribution


No rating, 115 minutes