It is December of 1945 and the fields are draped white with snow, the roads mushy and the air a damp cold. We are in Poland after The War. The Russians have seized their plunder, namely this Eastern Bloc country that wanted no part of Nazi Germany, but was invaded and then what choice did they have?
The story, recreated from actual events, takes place principally in two settings: a cloistered convent for nuns (Sisters or Soeurs since the film is largely in French, with English subtitles) and in the French Red Cross infirmary temporarily set up to care for those wounded in the war. Slowly, we discover that one, then another, then seven in all of the Sisters are near birth of children fostered by the ungodly rape perpetrated against them by the invading Russian soldiers. Not only have their vows of chastity been violated but their shame hangs over the monastery like a merciless winter that may never end. Their very lives, and that of the soon to be born, are also at risk given the lack of care they have received, the Spartan environment of the monastery itself, and the complications and illnesses some of them face.
One of the Novices (yet to take her vows) secretly steals away from the convent to find a doctor in the town, a French doctor “…not a Polish or Russian one.” She pays street children a token to take her to find a doctor at the French Red Cross station. So begins the inspirational collision of these two worlds.
While the Novice cannot get through to a physician, she finds a physician’s assistant, able beyond her training and qualifications, in many ways. But she, Matilde (Lou de Laâge), refuses the Sister’s request, telling her to find help from the Poles. The Sister is expelled from the Red Cross headquarters but kneels nearby, on frozen land, praying, which Matilde notices some time afterward and her heart is captured. She steals away as well from her cloister, taking a Red Cross jeep and a medical bag, and arrives at the convent in the dead of night, which is to become her portal to finding her cause, her mission, her heart.
This is a film by a woman director (Anne Fontaine), about women, and about war – but it goes well beyond those rich subjects to consider the Catholic Church,
Communism and the power of community. Two other women actors add to Lou de Laâge’s performance brilliance: Agata Buzek, who plays Maria the lovely, earthly second in charge, and Agata Kulesza, who plays the Mother Abesse (some may remember her stunning role as the Aunt in Ida, the Oscar winning Polish film from 2014). Kulesza’s acting realizes, again, the cold face of reality, being the representative of a rigid institution, and the self-sacrifice that is expected under the most awful of situations. But it is not she, it is Maria and Matilde who find a way to grace and to life.
Men don’t come across very well in this film. The Russians are like animals, the Poles shaking in their boots, and even the French doctors are flawed and given to being officious. I thought the doctors didn’t quite get a fair shake (but I am a doctor) since they were doing God’s work for no real compensation, except of course saving lives in locations remote from their home, families and opportunity.
What was so compelling to me about the film was what it took to rise above the extraordinary dilemma, the ignominy and the brutal choice - ostensibly between their infants and God - that the Sisters faced. It was not the problem solving or the bravery of the individual women (which was heart rending) but rather the power of their attachment to each other, to a community, which by the grace of
God found that by building on what they had, opening their doors to the urchin children of the village, they could be mothers in every sense of the word.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.