Faith and Solidarity
French director Anne Fontaine takes us back to Warsaw in December, 1945 with the end of World War Two. French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage) is treating the last of her patients when suddenly a panicked Benedictine nun appears at the clinic begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent. What she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy. Mathilde is a non-believer, yet enters the sisters fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Reverend Mother (Ida Agata Kulesza). The nuns fear the shame of exposure and the hostility of the occupying Soviet troops and local Polish communists. They are going through an unprecedented crisis of faith and increasingly turn to Mathilde as their beliefs and traditions clash with harsh realities.
This is a film that is all gloom and doom from beginning to end because of the scale of horror impinged upon an entire community. Seeing so many pregnant nuns could be comical if the pregnancies were the product of breaking their vows of celibacy. Here they are pregnant because of a series of gang rapes committed by occupying Russians. These terrible events lead some of the sisters to doubt their faith.
Some welcome Mathilde’s help, while others refuse it in the name of dogma, as being touched is a sin, even if it means letting syphilis go untreated. In one scene we see the severity of the convent’s repression as Mathilde gives a nun what seems to be her first medical examination; it may also be the first time that another adult has touched her body without violence. When Mathilde places her hand on the nun’s pregnant belly, the nun explodes in laughter, as if overwhelmed by the excitation but this is short-lived as the nun quickly recoils into muteness once she realizes another nun is watching her.
The problem I have with the film is that we never spend enough time with each character in order to care about them as individuals. At times it is even difficult at times to tell the nuns apart. This helps make the film something of an allegory for women’s condition in times of war or peace. We see that their kinship (the discovered link between the pious ones and the sexually liberated nurse) despite their different beliefs, behaviors, and customs is that they’re never safe.
We see this is a scene when a Soviet soldier attacks Mathilde while his colleagues egg him on and begin lining up to do the same. We are reminded that the making of a woman isn’t in the materiality of their bodies, but in the ways in which their bodies are repetitively made to not matter. Here, war seems to be something of an excuse for men to band together so they can all vow to annihilate the bodies of women as if to disavow the fact that their own will also annihilated sooner or later as well.
The Reverend Mother manages to persuade a very hesitant Mathilde, the only female doctor in the small Hospital to accompany her back to the convent, to attend to the nun who is in urgent need of medical care, but first she swears her to total secrecy about the visit. The nun Mathilde goes to see is, in fact, not sick, but actually about to give birth. This is the result of some months back when the convent was overrun by the invading Russian Army who raped the nuns and took control of the region.
Seven of the nuns are pregnant and they fear that not only will the towns-people want to evict them, but also that they are destined to face damnation. Some of them will not let Mathilde examine them as it is against Holy Orders to be touched or even be naked in front of anyone at all. The Mother Superior is loathed to let the doctor get involved at all, but when the babies literally starting dropping like flies, she realizes that she has no alternative. The moment they are born she whisks them off to be discreetly adopted, and the first baby is actually taken to live with the nun’s aunt.
Things deteriorate further when the Mother Superior who was also raped, develops a bad case of syphilis and adamantly refuses to let Mathilde help her. Whilst she is laid up the Russian soldiers suddenly return to the Convent and it is only quick thinking by Mathilde who tells them that there had been an outbreak of typhoid and it is this that averts further sexual abuse.
The story also has a subplot based at the Red Cross Unit where Mathilde’s boss, a very insecure Jewish man puts the moves on her. The two have a real connection but they both know that it is simply a temporary pastime during war even though he would like it to continue. This film is actually based on a true story, and is essentially about various crises of faith that are tested by all the traumas and iniquities of wartime.
The movie is shot in dark drab hues that convey a world ravaged by all the fighting and battles that damaged it almost beyond recognition and that needs to be rebuilt and re-born like the people who still live there. Viewers are left with a fresh understanding of man’s capacity to respond to suffering with good or evil and then to find new ways to define vocation and grace. We get a quite serious look at the struggle to hold on to faith in the most difficult of situations.