Film Review by Esther Graham
Poland 1962. Anna is a beautiful eighteen-year-old woman, preparing to become a nun at the convent where she has lived since orphaned as a child. She learns she has a living relative she must visit before taking her vows, her mother’s sister Wanda. Together, the two women embark on a voyage of discovery of each other and their past.
Stunningly photographed in black-and-white, and subtly told, this is a film for cinephiles. However, unlike recent black-and-white outings The Artist and Blancanieves, the film stock is not used for nostalgia value. Instead, each frame of this film feels like it contains the distillation of mood and character: perfectly capturing the stark truths that Anna must about her family’s past.
Agata Trzebuchowska, a first time actress, gives an impressively understated and convincing performance as Anna, a Catholic nun, who later learns her real name is Ida and that she is in fact Jewish. Her timid wholesomeness is contrasted neatly with the forceful character of her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Known as ‘Red Wanda’ during her time as hardline Communist State prosecutor, she is a cynical, chain-smoking, drink-driving woman of the world. The flashes of her backstory that are revealed throughout the film seem like they would be as fascinating a subject as Anna’s own. Wanda’s unpredictable antics and earthy humour prevents this tale from ever becoming grim. She asks Anna if she ever has sinful thoughts regarding carnal love, to which Ida says no. Wanda retorts, “You should try. Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”
A temptation for Anna soon arrives in the form of a handsome young musician the women pick up on their road trip. As a jazz saxophonist, he seems to embody the freedom that the cloistered Ida has never experienced. As she listens to his rendition of Coltrane’s ‘Naima’, it is as if something new is awakened in the young nun.
However, the film’s biggest emotional impact is contained in the revelation of what really happened to Anna’s parents, Wanda’s sister and brother-in-law, and its aftermath. The film explores the terrible choices that ordinary people feel compelled to make during times of war and the sheer weight of the past.
Limited dialogue and superb editing effectively convey the events in this story in a mere 80 minutes. Like a brilliant short story, you are left in awe of Pawel Pawlikowski’s craft as director.
A gentle, yet compelling insight into the atrocities of World War II and its haunting legacy, this is a gem of a film which will be enjoyed by lovers of art-house cinema.
Releases: 22nd May 2014
Duration: 80 minutes
Duration: 80 minutes
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Joanna Kulig
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski (The Woman in the Fifth, Last Resort)
Cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski was forced to quit the film after ten days' shooting for medical reasons. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal.
Awards: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival – Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) in Special Presentations section38th Gdynia Film Festival – Golden Lions for best film, actress (Kulesza), cinematography and production design, October 14, 2013
29th Warsaw Film Festival – Warsaw Grand Prix in the International Competition, October 19, 2013
57th BFI London Film Festival – Grand Prix as Best Film, October 19, 2013;
The International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography Camerimage – Golden Frogue for the best cinematography, November 23, 2013.