Saturday, July 02, 2016

Holy "Innocents"

38 years ago today.
Today is the 38th anniversary of my first vows. It is also the day we are celebrating with our sister Jubilarians: ten sisters celebrating 25, 50 and even 60 years since their first profession of chastity, poverty and obedience. Last week, Sister Kelly Andrew Marie made her final vows in her home parish in Houston, and the week before that, Sister Neville Christine professed final vows in her home diocese in Cameroon. So it is a real time of looking back and looking forward.
Sr Kelly Andrew professing final vows on
Sunday in her home parish (in Houston).

None of us can guess what life will ask of us in terms of the concrete living-out of what we promise. This is as true for nuns as it is for married couples. It was horrifically true for at least one community of sisters in WWII-era Poland. After the German occupation came the Soviet army and soldiers who looked on the women as spoils of war. They broke into the convent, raping the sisters (and killing twenty of them), leaving five survivors pregnant. A French doctor who assisted the community as a Red Cross volunteer recorded in her diary the story that is behind the film The Innocents which opened in theaters yesterday.

In the film only the basic outlines of the historical narrative are preserved. The doctor is renamed; no sisters have been murdered; while most of the sisters in the film story were violated, there are seven who became pregnant, more than half of them novices. (Trigger warning: there is one attempted rape scene in the movie, as well as another invasion of the cloister by Russian troops.)

A doctor (or is she a nurse? medical assistant?) is summoned by a novice who had slipped away while the others were in chapel. The sisters struggle with letting Mathilde know what happened nine months earlier. For the Superior, utmost secrecy is a matter of survival: if word gets out about the sisters' predicament, the convent would, she believes, surely be shut down and all their life would be destroyed in "scandal and disorder." This was hard for me to grasp, but even today in war zones where rape is used as a weapon, its victims are shunned and disinherited, unable to bring their children up in security. People conceived in rape are still an endangered species even outside of war zones.

Sister Maria (in foreground)
In the film's violated cloister, with all the members still reeling from the assault, Mother's concern for secrecy and her inability to share the burden of office with Sister Maria (who seems to be the Novice Director, but who may be the vice-superior) will have devastating consequences.

It was that same Sister Maria who seemed to be the central character of the movie. She is bi-lingual and so serves as translator between the Polish sisters and Mathilde. Sr Maria is also, in a sense, bi-cultural: Having entered the convent as a somewhat worldly (and "experienced") young woman, she is able to communicate openly with Mathidle  and compassionately with her fellow sisters. It is also Sister Maria who gives the most beautiful vocational testimony: Even after all she and the sisters have suffered and continue to suffer (not just from the physical consequences of the attack, but also through flashbacks--not to mention the sheer test of faith), she is happy with her life.

The film (in French and Polish with English subtitles) had opened by letting us know that it is Advent. The nuns are chanting the hymn Conditor Alme Siderum. (All of the chants were sung by the Polish actresses portraying the nuns.) Later I recognized another Advent text being sung: Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant Iustum ("Drop down dew from above, O Heavens, and let the clouds rain the Just One" from Isaiah 45:8). These two texts became for me a kind of interpretive key for the whole film.

As the infants are born, they are "wrapped in swaddling clothes" and in one case tucked into the crook of the young mother's arm in a scene that looks for all the world like a Christmas card. Maybe that is why we never see the feast of Christmas. Even the film's name, The Innocents, evokes the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, their lives and their mothers' upended by brutal soldiers. Mothers and children are "the innocents" of the title. Despite the physical violation they suffered, the young women are virgin mothers: consecrated virginity is not something that can be "lost" through force.

Several of the characters in the movie are well developed, especially Sister Maria and one of the novices who freely admits that she was forced into the convent by her family.  We see the tragic ways different sisters dealt (or tried to) with the trauma and its repercussions (real or feared). However, I found it hard to keep track of the particular novices and their unique stories. After all, they are all Polish women, about the same age, and dressed identically! There is also the reality of following the story through subtitles, so that vocal timbre was lost as another clue to each woman's identity. I think the director recognized this problem and tried to solve it by keeping most shots very close to the women's faces, but it was not enough for me.

The Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful, or mercy shall
be shown them" is painted above the door in the background.
While there is much talk of faith in the film (and just about every character —including the young medic —is in the midst of a severe crisis of faith), it is really, it seems to me, about hope.  At the close of the film we are catapulted three months forward. It is one year since the original act of violence. Not everyone has come through unscathed, but for the most part there is hope. And at the end of a film characterized by dimly lit interiors, we, like Mathilde, see the sisters in an arc of light.

The Innocents won a lot of praise at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was screened under the title Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). J. Ryan Parker wrote that it "should be a front runner for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Oscars. It’s a near perfect film." It is also a tough movie to watch. Not explicit, just intense. (I got a migraine by the halfway point. You have been warned.)

To find a showing near you, click "Theaters" on the official film website.

The Innocents honestly portrays a real risk in any kind of institution: that people may be sacrificed to structures. This is demonstrated not only in the convent situation, but also at the Red Cross clinic where Mathilde, the doctor, is a mere functionary. The movie also accurately conveys some of the best aspects of a healthy community. The "community recreation" was accurately portrayed, and the loving sisterly relationships in a time of trauma were just what I find in my own community when anyone is faced with unexpected and unexplainable suffering.

Although the film most explicitly explores the dimension of faith, a second (and not secondary) theme can be that of vocation. Three of the characters discover or express their personal vocation in the course of the film. One, sadly, appears to betray it.

Petty Gripes:
Just as lawyers will nitpick a legal drama and members of the military will point out the discrepancies in a war movie (and I have both types in my family!), I have a few bones to pick with the script team for The Innocents. Not that they didn't do an overall fantastic job of presenting life in a community, it's just that there are a few tedious elements that seem to always show up in movies or other artistic representations of convent life and that reflect some extreme misinterpretations. Here are the two that irked me the most:

The novice who ran without permission to bring a doctor to the community is severely reprimanded by the Superior and her punishment includes "a vow of silence for one week." What is it with the fixation about vows? Vows are made for a lifetime, not for a week. And they are made for the sake of something good in itself, not as a punishment. Besides, silence was a given at the time; monastic communities had specific times not for silence, but for speech. (Typically, the silence could be broken for necessary communications, although there are famous exceptions such as the Carthusians' elaborate system of sign language.) If Mother Superior wanted to give the novice a penance involving silence, she simply would have told her to maintain silence and not take advantage of the moments when it was relaxed for the community.

Then, when the (woman) doctor begins medical examinations, one of the novices refuses to submit. She is hysterical, screaming that she doesn't want to go to hell. (What?!) Sister Maria, cultural mediator between the convent and the doctor, explains, "We are not allowed to show our bodies, and even less to be touched. It's a sin." Please: don't go making up sins; there are enough of them already! (By the way, even 19th century convents had provisions for medical necessities.)

One more (small) thing. In one scene of a community meal, in accordance with monastic custom, a sister read a text aloud while the others ate in silence (of course). The text was from the Gospel of Matthew, but it was not translated (from the Polish?) for those of us dependent on subtitles. I would have appreciated knowing which Gospel text was chosen for this scene. It had to have been significant.

Read more:
Interview with the Director (Anne Fontaine):

Other reviews:

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