(The film is also under the name The Innocents)
French filmmaker Anne Fontaine came upon the diary of the French Red Cross Doctor Mathilde Bearlieu (Lou de Laage). She was a medical doctor assisting WWII survivors. One reoccurring entry in the diary was about her assistance to a group of nuns at a Polish convent immediately following the end of WWII. The Polish convent was under the occupation of the Soviet Army. A disturbing fact to the Polish Church.
Based on true events, screenwriters Sabrina B. Marine, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine, and Alice Vial formulated the narrative for Agnus Dei (The Innocents) taken from three separate accounts in different countries of the same horrific wartime atrocities.
In the winter of 1945, at the end of WWII, Mathilde Bearlieu was working for the French Red Cross in the Polish occupied territory under the Soviet Army's jurisdiction. Mathilde was a French speaking doctor tending to WWII survivors. She did not know the Polish language. One night the French doctor was summoned to come to the aid of those inside a nearby convent. In spite of strict orders to not leave the Red Cross Center premises, Mathilde left with the convent nun in secret. When she arrived to assist whoever was in need she was surprised to learn that no one was seriously ill but rather one nun needed a mid-wife. She had never delivered a baby thus making this just the beginning of the convents predicament. Mathilde would soon realize that several of the nuns were about to give birth. Raped by a group of Soviet Soldiers multiple times over several days on one of their raids, the women were demoralized and frightened. Many suffered emotionally from the traumatic experience and guilt. When Mathilde arrived, the nuns felt it was God's grace on their lives, a boost to their faith and their reality that such an angel would come to their aid. He sent Mathilde to rescue to and to protect them from their plight. But, did Mathilde believe in such a miracle? The unprecedented journey with the sisters opened her heart and mind to the serious realities of wars crimes, it's consequences and reasons of how one can survive.
Fontaine explains, "The situation [excerpts from Mathilde's matter-of-fact diary entries] was incredible. I was so moved by it." Fontaine could not help but wonder about the relationship between Mathilde, who had little-to-no conviction of a faith in a higher being; and the convent sisters who devoted their lives to service to the Almighty God of the heavens. Fontaine could only imagine the duress in which all were placed. She continues, "I mixed two or three realities in different wars. Specifically the story with Mathilde happened in Poland. But, it also happened in a convent in Vietnam." Agnus Dei is the story of many. Fontaine continues, "And, today it's the same situation in many countries. Even though it's [Agnus Dei] the era of 1945, it hasn't changed. [Rape], is a weapon of war."
Films with foreign subtitles for a native English speaker are not always the easiest to endure for a variety of reasons. I have spent years watching films with subtitles so that generally doesn't bother me unless the subtitles are difficult to read. I didn't remember the film Agnus Dei was playing in French with English subtitles until the film began. My immediate response was a bit down-trodden to think my brain would have to work a little harder to get the message of the filmmaker. I pushed to shake off the negativity and leaned into the initial esthetics of the film which brought me deeper into the narrative of Mathilde and her sisters. The 90-minutes flew by and the storyline resonated. Oddly I was so into the narrative that I almost felt like a Frenchman viewing a film in my mother-tongue. I was moved beyond belief. At the films end, I jumped to my feet, hands clapping endless along with the audience in the auditorium as we gave Fontaine's Agnus Dei a standing ovation. A screening unforgettable.