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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Nun's Story
by Donald Levit

Long-absent native son Pawel Pawlikowski returned to Poland to direct his co-written Ida. Multi-nominated for awards in the Old Continent, selected for prestigious festivals here and already in the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Contenders” of Oscar nomination likelies, the story is not finally a historical consideration of his birthplace’s and Communism’s disgraceful relationships with the decimated Jewish community, but rather a sober tale of individual identity through family and religious faith and the working out of personal guilt.

On his own, the United Kingdom-based filmmaker had at first set the piece against the March 1968 unrest of purges and protests but put it aside for a while, to prune it down together with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, move the events to a calmer six to seven years earlier, and change its established nun into Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, a first timer who claims zero desire to act again), a rural convent-raised orphan on the cusp of taking her final vows as a sister.

Nuns and novices’ meals and lives are silent. But then, throughout the eighty-minute whole silences are long and many, with radio, Victrola or jazz combo music embedded within the action. In period- and place-appropriate b&w, landscapes are wintry bare and muddy, skies featureless leaden, limited interior light natural and angled, and framing often leaving faces at the bottom and sometimes cropped. There is no joy in this Mudville until the bittersweet end, after cynical weary Aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) tells the entirely unworldly Anna that renunciation of this world has meaning only if one knows what one is giving up.

Equally wise, Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) insists that prior to ordination the inexperienced young woman spend time in Lodz with her sole living relative, with whom she has had no contact. Still attractive to the men who revolve in and out of her sexual favors, “Red” Wanda had been a feared Stalinist-era prosecutor pronouncing the death penalty for enemies of the State. To deal with that and other personal demons from the past, Wanda smokes and drinks without letup, presumably among the reasons she has been eased from that bench.

No nonsense on the outside, the woman brings out creased old photos and reveals that Anna is in fact Ida Lepienstein, only child of Jews Chaim and her beloved sister Róża, murdered during the Occupation, not by Nazis but by “good Christians, your neighbors” desirous of their property and infected with the national Catholic working and peasant class anti-Semitism.

It is unrealistic that Wanda has never done so before on her own, but now, smoking and drinking behind the wheel, she and her niece head to what had been the family farm. On a deserted road, they stop to pick up hitchhiking alto saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a Coltrane fan who invites them to sit in at his quintet-plus-singer’s (“a guest appearance” by Joanna Kulig) gig downstairs at their seedy hotel’s bar in this Eastern Bloc country where everything looks seedy, anyway.

Hostile suspicion at the farmhouse and the hospitalization of the owner’s father slow down the search for Ida’s parents’ (and an accompanying boy’s) fate and gravesite, giving time for the novice to listen to the handsome musician play and, a confessed “bit of a Gypsy” himself, wonder to her, “You have no idea of the effect you have, do you?”

Coming to terms with past and present life, Wanda perhaps without knowing and certainly without pushing it, gets her niece to do the same. Anna/Ida pays intimate homage to Wanda and now knows where she comes from and is thus freed to commit to where she is going. Like the film itself, simplicity is a good path in this complex situation.

(Released by Music Box Films and rated “PG-13” for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking.)

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