Nuns, Nazis and children - you'd be forgiven for mistaking this for one of my favourite films. What Conspiracy of Hearts is, however, is a painful reminder of wartime interspersed with some heart-warming moments and a dash of sentimentality.
A convent has been helping to smuggle children out of a nearby concentration camp in Italy. German officers have been brought in to control the situation, making the work more difficult and dangerous. Despite advice, Mother Katharine (Lilli Palmer) refuses to accept that God intends them to leave the children in the camp and continues to put herself and her convent at risk. She is supported by most of the nuns with the exception of Sister Gerta (Yvonne Mitchell) who feels the lying to hide the children is a weight on her conscience. When a nun is shot during an escape attempt, the German officer brought in begins to become more suspicious and the film builds to a suspenseful conclusion with the nuns at risk of being executed and the latest batch of children in serious trouble.
Beginning with a news bulletin recap of events in Italy was perhaps useful but distracting to the film as a whole. The wider context didn't need to be understood; just the fact of Mussolini falling would've been information enough. However, from then on we are pushed straight into the endeavours of the nuns. There's very little dialogue at the beginning and this works to accentuate the danger. Later, as the nuns smuggle a rabbi into the convent (literally over the walls) to perform a ceremony for the children, the viewer is aware that the secret is out and the soldiers are on the way to retrieve the children. It builds the tension up to unbearable levels and leaves you seriously wondering whether the nuns will survive.
Lilli Palmer is wonderful as Mother Katharine. Her innate warmth and humour that I've noticed in other roles shone through perfectly in this one. Yvonne Mitchell demonstrated Sister Gerta's conflicts well from the beginning and her change of heart is one of the film's more endearing moments. Novice nun, Sister Mitya (Sylvia Syms), wants to devote her life to the convent but her heart had been captured by Major Spoletti (Ronald Lewis). Spoletti is the 'careless' Italian major who has turned a blind eye to the escape plots. He is forced to comply with the new strict rules until he's faced with watching Sister Mitya be attacked on German orders. The film paints a good picture of the Italian soldiers, though the Nazis are mostly framed as just that - Nazis.
Some of the scenes with the children do get a little sentimental but that would be difficult to avoid. Perhaps the most important thing about this film is that it builds ever gently to a suspenseful climax without resorting to too much melodrama. Definitely worth a watch if you want to see war from a different angle and if you're a Lilli Palmer fan.