Such Is My Devotion - The Innocents Programme Note

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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

Last month, tens of thousands of women flooded into the streets of Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź, Wrocław, Poznań, Kraków. Dressed in black, together they sought to protest legislation that would have rendered all abortions, save those to prevent the deaths of pregnant women, punishable by up to five years in prison. Their march, along with its accompanying strike, also served as a backlash against the already restrictive laws of a country in which the current annual number of back-alley abortions is frequently estimated at around 100,000, with some reckonings reaching nearly double that amount.

Their mass demonstration was, in some ways, born of a conflict between two incompatible ideologies, each of which felt it had a claim on moral certitude. Underlying this disagreement was a fundamental question: in such a case as this, which group has the right to directly impose their morality on another? And, specifically, can those acting on behalf of a religious authority be granted permission to execute what they perceive to be the will of God, despite whatever human consequences may lead on from their interpretation of it?

These concerns almost precisely echo those at the heart of Anne Fontaine's The Innocents, the action of which is likewise set in Poland, albeit over 70 years before the #CzarnyProtest movement was born. Yet its story of a group of nuns forced to balance the rigours of religious devotion with their own and each other's survival just as eloquently outlines the gap between the extremes of belief and the exigencies and demands of medical and moral choice. The film's central character, junior doctor Mathilde Beaulieu, dedicates herself to ensuring the well-being of these nuns and their children once she is unwittingly brought into their conspiracy of silence, despite her own anticlericalism and exhausting work schedule. Her duty of care for them is unwavering, even as she meets with initial trepidation and even outright hostility from those she would seek to help.

Part of this adverse reaction, as becomes clear, is due to a sense of shame over the events necessitating Mathilde's presence. Having already endured the physical and psychological traumas of being raped by groups of soldiers at the end of the Second World War, the nuns' plight is compounded by their overriding fear that the surrounding community should discover what has befallen them. Their sense of shame is so pervasive as to be nearly fatal, leading them at first to do without any medical assistance for the childbirths at all. (Such internalised victim-blaming also has its own disturbingly modern parallels, familiar to the victims of Ched Evans or Donald Trump alike.)

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Despite this, the fortitude of the majority of the nuns is never in question: such is their piety that they fear obstetric examinations might contravene their vows of chastity; such is their devotion to the cycle of daily prayers that those in the midst of labour break off to pray the Angelus as the bells signal its arrival. But they are also just as deeply committed to each other, and whilst some understandably and tragically succumb to their private battles, on the whole they are just as unwavering in their cause as Mathilde is in hers.

These matching determinations set up the film's central exercise: an examination of the opposites embodied by these two sides, in which medicine takes on religion, pleasure competes with austerity, Mathilde's Communism matches pace with the nuns' Catholicism. But this dichotomy only balances itself for a time, before becoming increasingly destabilised by the presence of a third force: that of the convent's Mother Superior.

At first glance, she presents a pantomime Nurse Ratched figure, ruthlessly executing her duties in the name of order and the greater good. Yet while it seems easy to condemn the reasoning behind her decision to abandon the nuns' children to die in the winter cold - with one of the nuns even summoning up to the courage to denounce her as a murderer - the film challenges us, in this instant, to question how we arrive at our own most fundamental beliefs. If it is through experience alone, can we take it for granted that ours has led us to the correct outcome? If through reasoning, can we ever be sure that ours is without flaw? We may have the strength required to act upon our ideals or to make a great sacrifice, but we can never be entirely certain that we possess the moral right to take such actions upon ourselves if their outcomes have profound effects on those around us. We must accept that it is for others to ultimately judge the rectitude - or otherwise - of our actions.

These are the ambiguities on which the film turns, as the actions of the Mother Superior emerge as little less than the mirror image of Mathilde's own. Both are wrought of the same sense of duty and dogged adherence to divergent moral compasses. The Mother Superior's decision to damn herself in order to save her flock is, at its core, no different from Mathilde's single-minded focus on helping the nuns, in which she too must stubbornly break down their resistance to her, and which also comes at a cost to her personal and professional relationships - and, presumably, to the functioning of her own combat hospital.

With both characters possessing the determination to act out their ideals though the heavens fall, we are left to be the arbiters of whose are in the right and whose are not. And yet, who are we to judge whether any in this story are truly innocent? In the end, there are no answers: in the silence afterwards, we determine for ourselves which path we think correct.

Marc David Jacobs, freelance arts worker
November 2016

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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