Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Oscar Wins: Best Foreign Language Film (Poland)
Oscar Nominations: Best Cinematography (Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski)
SUMMARY: Some fifteen years after the end of WWII, a young novice nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is preparing to take her vows in Poland. However, before she is allowed to do this, the prioress asks Anna to meet with her only living relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Anna is an orphan, and was raised in the convent; as a baby, Wanda was asked to take her in, but refused. Anna obliges the prioress and travels to meet Wanda, who is her polar opposite: she smokes constantly, drinks heavily, and sleeps around (she also advises Ida to try some sinning before taking her vows). She is also a judge, but has lost most of the prestige she once had. She reveals a startling secret: Anna’s name is really Ida Lebenstein — and she’s not Catholic, she’s Jewish. Her parents were killed late in the German occupation of Poland; Ida, who was only a baby, survived and was taken to the convent. Wanda survived because she was fighting with the resistance. Ida want to visit the graves of her parents, even though Wanda explains that there might not be any grave to find (and that she might not like what they find). However, she volunteers to drive Ida to the farm where the family hid during the war. On the way, they pick up a young man named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), who is traveling to the same town to play a gig with his band. Wanda makes an attempt to fix Ida and Lis up, but Ida resists. The next day, the two women visit the farm where the Lebenstein family lived, which is now owned by a Polish man named Feliks Skiba. Feliks’ father hid the family during the war, but Feliks refuses to give them any information about his whereabouts, or about what happened to the Lebensteins. Wanda and Ida travel to the local hospital and find the elderly man, but still do not learn anything. However, after he learns of their visit to the hospital, Feliks visits Ida and promises to show her the graves if she gives up any claim to the house and leaves the family alone.
Ida agrees to this deal, and she, Wanda and Feliks go into the woods behind the house. There, Feliks digs up the grave, which contains the bones of three people: Ida’s mother and father, and a young boy. Feliks then explains that it was not his father that killed the family, as Wanda believed: it was Feliks himself. He murdered both of the parents, but spared Ida because of her age and non-Jewish appearance; he was the one who took her to the convent. Unbeknownst to Ida until now, Wanda also had a child, a young boy, whom she left with Ida’s parents while she was with the resistance. Feliks explains that the boy was darker skinned and circumcised, and therefore couldn’t pass for a Christian, so he killed him too. Ida and an obviously affected Wanda gather up the bones, then take them to Lublin where the family has a plot. After finishing this job, Wanda takes Ida back to the convent, and returns to her apartment. However, both women have difficulty returning to their former lives. Ida is more skeptical, and begins to question her decision to become a nun, and Wanda falls into a deep depression. A few days later, she jumps out of her upper window and kills herself. Ida leaves the convent to attend her aunt’s funeral, where she runs into Lis again. That evening, she changes out of her habit and into Wanda’s dress and shoes, smokes and drinks, and then goes to Lis’ gig, where the two dance together. That night they sleep together, and Lis later suggests they get married. However, when he goes back to sleep, Ida puts on her nun’s habit and leaves the apartment.
MY TAKE: This is a pretty unique take on the Holocaust movie, because it actually takes place about fifteen years after the end of the war, and none of the main characters experienced it firsthand. It’s also from Poland, which everybody knows was hit extremely hard by the war. The movie never really examines the Holocaust itself (in fact, Ida’s parents weren’t even in a concentration camp), but the effects of it are pretty clearly seen: Ida herself has no idea that she’s Jewish, nobody will admit to knowing her parents, the family home has been unofficially taken over by a Christian family (a common occurrence, after the Jews were forced into ghettos), and the cemetery containing the family plot (presumably a Jewish cemetery) is overgrown and abandoned. Everything points to the fact that Jewish people are now a rarity in Poland — and that people are either afraid of retribution, or still feel anti-Semitic. This really sets it apart, because few movies examine the direct aftermath of the war and the Holocaust. In terms of story, it’s not overly impressive, maybe because there’s not much dialogue. Even though she later cuts up with Lis, Ida doesn’t seem to be that affected by the news of her heritage. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t remember any of it. Wanda, however, is devastated by the revisiting of the past, and ends up killing herself (which you can see coming). The ending is ambivalent, which kind of irritated me, but I figure that she was going back to the convent: the night with Lis was simply Ida doing what her aunt suggested, experiencing life before fully entering the convent.