When Christians use cinema to share the conviction of their beliefs, we get what is known as a “faith-based movie.” But what do we call the opposite? What can be made of a film born of skepticism, which approaches religious institutions from a place of fundamental doubt, further complicating the matter through the inclusion of ambiguous miracles? Swiss director Simon Jaquemet’s coolly intellectual “The Innocent” is such a movie. It dedicates nearly two hours to questioning the kind of evangelical Christianity that a woman has used to cope for the past 20 years, only to end with a moment in which her prayers are answered before our eyes.
The woman in question is named Ruth, which can be no accident, considering how her experience loosely echoes that of the Old Testament character, a widow who accepted God and was rewarded with a new husband. Along similar lines, this Ruth (played by Judith Hofmann) was separated from her true love, a man named Andi, when he was arrested for a crime she refused to accept that he had committed, even going so far as to protest outside the court. When he was found guilty, she had no choice but to move on, eventually settling down with a stable Christian man and starting a family.
Two decades have passed, and now, Andi has returned. Or so Ruth believes. An old friend informs her that Andi died sometime ago while riding on the roof of a train across India. But then how to explain his appearance in her living room? Could she be imagining things? The movie is deliberately vague about Andi’s status: Yes, we can see him, but there’s reason to doubt the reliability of such an encounter in a film whose subjective point-of-view can sometimes be unreliable.
Could this be some kind of test, as her husband believes — a demon, perhaps, come to try Ruth’s faith? Here, the film turns somewhat judgmental, observing the practices of her religion almost like brainwashing: In an early scene, she passes out during a charismatic church service, and later, the preacher attempts to perform a kind of exorcism, offering the use of what looks like a solitary confinement chamber in his basement until she comes around. Her husband tries an even more radical strategy, taking Ruth to a swingers club, as if to confront the temptation head-on (this scene, along with another in which Ruth catches her eldest daughter acting out sexually, are unflinchingly explicit).
“The Innocent” proves only partly successful in putting audiences in Ruth’s head, which can be no fault of Hofmann, a terrific actress — something like Switzerland’s answer to Frances McDormand, minus the dry humor — who delivers a riveting performance as a woman torn between the two things she has believed most: As a young woman, she was convinced of Andi’s innocence, and now, as an adult, she has accepted Christianity as a kind of governing truth (though Andi’s “return” inspires her to hire a private detective to reopen the case).
The development wreaks havoc in all aspects of her life, including her day job in a research lab — a surreal subplot in which scientists are essentially playing God by trying to transplant the head of a primate onto another’s body. That monkey business will resurface quite spectacularly later in the film, like the plague of frogs in “Magnolia” or the apocalyptic storm in “Take Shelter,” lending last-minute credibility to Ruth’s beliefs. Here, Jaquemet also performs a miracle, albeit one that is witnessed only by the audience, and whose significance feels like something of a cheat: What use is faith when a film provides proof of the impossible?
In that respect, “The Innocent” could be seen as a distant echo of “Ordet,” in which director Carl Theodor Dreyer answers a family’s spiritual crisis in the film’s final moments by raising a woman from the dead. Still, it’s important to understand going in that “The Innocent” holds no answers about the existence of God. Rather, the film reflects its creator’s own complicated understanding of religion: It’s the work of someone intrigued — and possibly even alarmed — by intelligent people’s capacity to believe, but who has not ruled out that there are phenomena in this world for which he cannot account.
At least, that’s the interpretation Jaquemet reveals via the director’s statement included among the press notes, which really ought to be printed out and provided to theatergoers, since many of his concerns are buried so deep in the subtext of the film they seem likely to elude viewers altogether. But even taken at the most literal, surface level, there’s value to the film, which unfolds like a slow-motion thriller, achieving a captivating kind of intimacy even as it maintains a chilly arm’s-length remove from a cosmic mystery that no film can satisfyingly answer.