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Les Innocentes

(The Innocents)

By the director of Coco avant Chanel and Gemma Bovery

The Innocents, by director Anne Fontaine (Gemma Bovery, Coco Before Chanel) is a powerful drama about the various crises of faith that emerge when a house of God is ravaged by war. Based on a true story, this is Fontaine’s finest film in years, notable for the tact, intelligence and fine-grained character detail with which it examines an unthinkable scenario.

Poster for the French / Polish movie Les InnocentesThe film unfolds in a Polish convent in December 1945, which would seem to have stood as a refuge from the terrors of the German occupation. But the painful truth emerges when French doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge) visits the convent. Upon arrival, she finds one of the younger sisters in labour and promptly delivers the baby.

The silence that attends this harrowing scene – with no one offering an explanation – is so profound that you may wonder, if only for a moment, whether the child was immaculately conceived. The terrible truth could hardly be less divine: Soviet soldiers entering Poland several months earlier forced their way into the monastery and proceeded to have their way with the nuns – an unspeakable violation that left seven of them pregnant. Now that Mathilde knows their secret, most of the nuns are hoping she will stay and help deliver the babies, which the Mother Superior will arrange to have adopted, so as to prevent the convent’s great shame from coming to light.

Indeed, the corrosive nature of shame – particularly in a situation where it is entirely undeserved – is one of the key themes of the film, which explores an impossible situation from every possible moral, spiritual and institutional angle. In the process, the sisters emerge as individuals with their own unique feelings, convictions, personal histories and varying degrees of faith.

Forging an unexpected alliance with Mathilde is Sister Maria, in many ways the wisest and most stable figure in the convent. Tellingly, her own relatively worldly past – she wasn’t a virgin when she took her vow of chastity – has equipped her to deal with the trauma better than most. By contrast, the Mother Superior regards the young doctor as a necessary evil. Stubborn, judgmental and short-sighted though she may be, the elder nun is clearly aware that a public scandal of this magnitude would destroy what little respect or authority the Church still commands, making The Innocents very much a movie about the weakening grip of religious institutions in turbulent times.

As Mathilde, Lou De Laâge anchors the drama with a calm and assurance that rarely waver; Agata Buzek is no less impressive as Sister Maria, her icy veneer thawing by controlled degrees. But the film’s standout turn comes from Agata Kulesza in her portrayal of the domineering Mother Superior. As she did in Ida, the actress illuminates the inner life of a misguided authority figure with equal parts cruelty and compassion.

Fontaine’s austere but emotional film unfolds at a revealingly slow pace and with an appreciable sense of mystery; it’s in no hurry to reveal what the nuns have seen and endured, or the challenging new directions in which their experience might lead them. What the picture leaves us with is a fresh understanding of our capacity to respond to suffering with good or evil, and to find new definitions of grace and vocation.

– Justin Chang, Variety

Un film exceptionnel, une histoire vraie, une quête éperdue de l’humain. En 1945, la guerre est finie. Une jeune Française, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), travaille dans une unité sanitaire en Pologne pour rapatrier les soldats français. Contactée par une religieuse polonaise, elle se rend dans un couvent isolé. Au fin fond de la forêt, elle découvre une bonne sœur enceinte. Puis deux. Puis trois. Puis… Les troupes soviétiques sont passées par là. Ces femmes ont été violées à de multiples reprises. Certaines sont déchirées entre le désir de maternité et le vœu de chasteté, d’autres sont éprouvées dans leur foi, ou frôlent la folie. 

La barbarie les a détruites, les laudes et la prière ne les consolent pas. Et que faire des nouveau-nés ? Nous sommes en territoire communiste, désormais, la religion est l’opium du peuple, les nonnes sont des ‘ennemies du prolétariat’. Peu à peu, Mathilde commence à accompagner ces femmes condamnées à l’enfer sur terre. Elles sont toutes des crucifiées.

Depuis une vingtaine d’années, Anne Fontaine (Gemma Bovery) fait des films sur des thèmes sensibles : la fragilité, la transgression, le déchirement, la force des femmes. Avec Les Innocentes, la réalisatrice a trouvé son état de grâce : tourné en Pologne, fondé sur le journal intime d’une authentique héroïne, Madeleine Pauliac, ce film poignant montre une tragédie secrète, une damnation absolue. La douleur de ces femmes est palpable, terrible, exprimée par des actrices polonaises qui méritent qu’on retienne leurs noms : Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Joanna Kulig. Elles sont bouleversantes.

– François Forestier, Nouvel Observateur

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