After two striking British dramas (Last Resort and My Summer of Love) and a clever French mystery (The Woman in the Fifth), filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski returns home to Poland to tell a simple story that bursts with deeper meaning. It's a minor masterpiece, shot in pristine black and white in striking locations, anchored by provocative themes and beautifully textured acting. As it explores themes of history and faith, the film grabs hold of the audience in often startlingly resonant ways.
It's set in the early 1960s, as the young novice Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) comes of age in the isolated countryside convent where she was raised since early childhood. Her mother superior (Halina Skoczynska) tells her that she needs to learn about her past before she can take the vows to become a nun, so Anna heads off to find her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). The first thing Anna discovers is that her real name is Ida and her parents were actually Jewish. Since Wanda never knew how they died, shea agrees to travel with Anna to the family's village to try and get some answers. But the local father-and-son farmers (Jerzy Trela and Adam Szyszkowski) are oddly reluctant to tell them the whole story.
Yes, Pawlikowski is exploring his nation's complex history, a complicated swirl of personal responsibility entangled with politics and religion. Anna's own story relates back to the days when Nazis overran Poland, and the Jewish baby Ida became the Catholic Anna to protect her from the concentration camps. But learning all of this makes Anna question what she should believe: the faith of her parents or the one she was taught in the convent? Meanwhile, Wanda has her own difficult past to deal with. As a former judge who helped prosecute criminals from the Soviet occupation, she's just as troubled by what she has always believed to be the truth.
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Chaplin plays John, a British bank clerk who has accomplished everything in his life except for finding true love. As the film opens, he is rehearsing his life script in front of a Webcam for a Russian online mail-order bride service. He's finally had enough of the dating world, so he reaches out halfway across the globe to find a wife.
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The men involved are air force members from the Czech Republic who've escaped Nazi occupation of their homeland and now fight for the Allied forces in the British patrol. Their leader, Franta Slama (Ondrej Vetchý), amiably directs his troops in a casual, European manner. You sense he'd much rather be their friend than superior, and his closest relationship forms with up-and-coming pilot Karel (Krystof Hádek). Their friendship, unfortunately, isn't long for this world.
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