Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation.
A bit of a postscript: I actually watched this movie last year but this review sort of languished in my Drafts folder for some reason. So I’m posting it now 😉
I was curious about this movie leading up to the Oscars because it was mentioned having a good chance of winning alongside Russia’s Leviathan (review to follow shortly after this one goes live). I didn’t really know much about this movie except that it was filmed in black and white and that it was submitted from Poland. I checked out the movie shortly after it won.
Firstly, the way it was filmed. It’s interesting, artsy: the subject is almost always off-centre from the screen, lots of space between subjects and objects, black-and-white filming (albeit in HD so it’s pretty crisp), punctured silencs between characters, lots of silhouettes. It expands on an otherwise bleak environment of communist Poland: snowy convents in the middle of nowhere, the rundown buildings in the city, the simple farms.
The story itself is very simple: a novitiate nun, Anna, reconnects with an absent aunt, Wanda, a judge, and learns that her family is Jewish and that her birth name was Ida. She ends up on a road trip with her aunt back to her family home in the countryside to learn what really happened to her parents and to find out where they were buried. While it’s a simple road story, the minutes reveal that it’s really a character journey, of Anna/Ida venturing out into the world before taking her vows. The contrast between Anna/Ida and Wanda was very interesting: Wanda is a worker of the communist regime, smokes, drinks, flirts with men, while Anna/Ida is quiet, devout to the Catholic faith. Their personalities and beliefs clash occasionally, but it’s interesting, especially as Wanda is a very complex character with a lot more going on than meets the eye. Agata Kulesza was amazing to watch, especially as her facade begins to crumble, her secrets rise to the surface, and the tragic conclusion of said secrets. It’s also an interesting contrast to Agata Trzebuchowska’s Anna/Ida who seems a little too blank sometimes; sometimes it reflected the charcter’s sense of stillness/not knowing much about the outside world, but other times I felt like she could’ve emoted more.
I can see why there were complaints about the film. The Polish countrymen were reduced to barbaric simplicity with no fleshed-out nuances to explain their motives and their reluctance to help Wanda and Anna/Ida find out about what happened to their loved ones. Others complained about Anna’s return to the convent, that it was cheap way back to a sense of safety, that her sexual revolution was stunted back to some patriarchial primitiveness. I didn’t see it that way, I felt her return was a foregone conclusion, that her sudden plunge into her aunt’s world was to briefly experience was she felt and did, get it out of her system, before making a decision. She didn’t seem terribly excited by the prospects laid before her by Feliks (however much I shipped those two; they were so cute in their scenes together) and her faith, however much many people questioned as a safety net of sorts, felt like a real devotion for me. So for me her return was really an affirmation of what she knew all along, rather than some backwards descent that people approached her decision to be.
Overall, it was an interesting film, though I expected to be more profoundly moved by it than I actually was. Agata Kulesza as Wanda for me was a highlight watching this movie and yeah, I’m glad to have finally watched it.