French Film Looks at Soviet Barbarism Against Polish Nuns in WWII

by Christine Niles  •  •  February 10, 2016   

"Agnus Dei" explores faith in the midst of tragedy

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The film "Les Innocentes" ("Agnus Dei" in its American release), produced by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine,debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in late January, and is a stark look at the lives of nuns who suffered at the hands of Soviet soldiers during World War II.
Based on true events, the story revolves around a Red Cross doctor, Madeleine Pauliac (the character Mathilde in the film), sent to help a convent of Polish nuns in 1945, whom she later discovers had been raped by a group of Soviet soldiers months earlier.

According to Pauliac's actual notes, 25 of the Polish nuns in the convent had been violated by the soldiers, some as many as 40 times in a row. Twenty of the nuns were murdered, while five ended up pregnant.

"This historical fact doesn't reflect well on the Soviet soldiers, but it's the truth," Fontaine said in an interview, "a truth that authorities refuses to divulge, even if several historians are aware of the events."

"These soldiers didn't feel they were committing a reprehensible act," she explained. "They were authorized to do so by their superiors as a reward for their efforts."

The film details the French doctor's attempts to help the nuns, as well as the nuns' struggles to reconcile their faith with tragedy. Fontaine, herself a Catholic with family members in religious life, spent a great deal of time speaking with religious in preparing for the film, and came away with a favorable impression.

"Many people who have chosen this life are happy," she said. "I had long interviews with religious people whom I met about this subject. Their intelligence, their vision and sense of humor were fascinating."

Italian writer Emilio Ranzato, writing in the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano, remarked that "Les Innocentes" is "perhaps the most beautiful film set within the walls of a convent, apart from 'Therese'" (the 1986 film by Alain

The nuns undergo "a test of courage," Ranzato writes, which highlights their "fragility" without in any way diminishing their vocation.

The film is set for limited release in the United States.


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