Filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (“Last Resort,” “My Summer of Love”), who has been based in Britain, returns to his native Poland for this of blend of road tale, detective story, and coming-of-age drama, shot in period-evoking black-and-white. The setting is 1962 Poland, where reverberations of Nazi terror coexist with present woes of the communist sort. A Bergmanesque metaphysical crackle charges the air.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young orphan preparing to take her vows as a nun, receives instructions from her mother superior to visit Wanda (Agata Kulesza), the aunt Anna didn’t know existed.
Wanda, a disillusioned official for the regime who treats her misery with alcohol and one-night stands, matter-of-factly tells her niece that her name isn’t Anna but Ida Lebenstein, and that she was born to Jewish parents who perished during the war. Wanda then drives the pair into the woods to investigate the Lebensteins’ fate.
Along the way, friction erupts between the devout Anna and the pleasure-seeking Wanda, who wants her niece to experience something carnal before she disappears into religious life. The feelings Anna develops for a saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) figure into Anna’s dilemma in this regard.
Pawlikowski parallels the solving of the burial-site mystery with the slow revealing of disturbing facets of Wanda’s past, which includes a role as a prosecutor who sentenced enemies of the state to death.
A complexity of victim and perpetrator, Wanda, played with fascinating shades and substance by the veteran actress Kulesza, emerges as the more compelling character. And at times the increasingly dominant focus Pawlikowski gives her undermines the impact of the Anna-Ida journey — the movie’s primary story.
At the same time, though, newcomer Trzebuchowska is a likable presence whose Anna isn’t false. Pawlikowski weaves the women’s joint and individual stories into an observant, immensely affecting story about Poland, identity, faith, collaboration, and the sickness that prevails when countries and individuals don’t address their past.
Co-written by Pawlikowski and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the narrative is nicely free of harrowing flashbacks and plot twists and achieves enormous power from simple imagery such as a single skull. The use of retro-style cinematography enhances the period element without distracting from the drama.
Lest the film sound like too much of a downer, be assured that Pawlikowski laces it with beauty and hope.
Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
Written by Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Running time 1 hour, 20 minutes