Fact-inspired and deeply satisfying, this story out of post-WWII Poland mesmerizes from its opening shots inside a Catholic Convent as Sister Maria sneaks out on her devotions to track down a doctor. Avoiding Polish or Russian help (the sector is under Russian military control), she locates a small medical unit of the French Red Cross and convinces a young female doctor, working as a nurse/assistant, to help. Back at the convent, a nun has gone into a difficult labor, one of eight pregnant sisters, perhaps more; the result of Russian ‘liberators’ storming the convent after routing the Nazis. Desperate to keep this secret shame within their walls, the Mother Superior, herself a victim with a case of syphilis, can barely acknowledge the inevitable consequences. The young doctor faces the moral ultimatum of helping these nuns, already ashamed or in denial of what their bodies are telling them, or leaving them to their chances. All while maintaining long hours on staff with her unit. It’s riveting stuff, loaded with vivid characters, a dab of romance taken on the fly with a love-sick Red Cross doctor, honest suspense (though a false ‘quarantine’ alarm feels contrived*), tests of spirituality, and an unforgivable sin that may make the film too difficult for teens. (Family Friendly label applies only to high schoolers.) A great tale of courage & friendship between women that’s actually been made largely by women. And you can feel it, from director/co-writer Anne Fontaine down thru most of the technical crafts. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier earns special kudos for adding a touch of Vermeer portraiture in her lighting. And, within an all praise-worthy cast, Lou de Laâge, as the doctor, stands out for reining in her emotions and for unmissable old-school beauty. A real throwback to Golden Age standards, she’s like a cross between Leslie Caron (in her Gigi days) & the young Jeanne Moreau. Hollywood! If she speaks English, grab her up! If she doesn’t, teach her.
DOUBLE-BILL: A surprising list of major directors have a ‘nun’s story’ in them, try Robert Bresson’s overlooked debut, LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ/’43.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The quarantine gambit, used as a ruse to keep Russians out of the convent, might well be a true incident. Often as not, the phoniest moment in a bio-pic usually turns out to be true! Sometimes, especially in Hollywood samples of the form, the howlers are the only true incidents in there.