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‘The Innocents’ review: Riveting exploration of complex issues

Joanna Kulig plays a nun in

Joanna Kulig plays a nun in "The Innocents." Photo Credit: Music Box Films

PLOT In post-World War II Poland, a French Red Cross doctor tries to aid nuns in advanced states of pregnancy.

CAST Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza

RATED PG-13 (disturbing thematic material including sexual assault, bloody images and brief suggestive content)

LENGTH 1:55

PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas, Malverne Cinema 4, Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington

BOTTOM LINE A riveting drama dealing with complex moral issues.

“The Innocents” soars above its seeming contradictions.

Inspired by the journal notes of Madeleine Pauliac, a young French Red Cross doctor who worked in Poland at the end of World War II, “The Innocents” has quite a story to tell, and director Anne Fontaine (who shares writing credit with Pascal Bonitzer, Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial) knows precisely how to tell it.

“The Innocents” is set in December 1945, six months after the end of the European war, in a Poland occupied by Russian troops. It takes place at a Benedictine convent that had been the site of multiple rapes, which resulted in more than half a dozen nuns becoming pregnant. The inconceivable nightmare that has happened to these women affects their faith in any number of different ways. Trying to help them is Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), the only doctor the iron-willed Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) will allow inside. Mathilde has to hide what she is doing from her superiors at work and must deal with any number of crises her convent visits precipitate. She also must figure out her own feelings about Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a cynical French Jewish doctor whose parents died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

In addition to its dramatic narrative thrust about the fate of the nuns, “The Innocents” explores a number of compelling moral issues, including the nature of faith, the competing demands of motherhood and religion, what do God and morality require, and how do fallible people interpret those demands?

Strikingly acted by all concerned and impeccably put together by Fontaine without any false steps, “The Innocents” is also wonderfully lit, with frequent convent scenes invariably reminiscent of Italian Renaissance paintings.

Creating those luminous images was cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who also shot Xavier Beauvois’ marvelous film of monks in crisis, 2011’s “Of Gods and Men.” If there were still repertory house double bills, these two would make a splendid package.

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