The opening scenes of a peaceful, snow-covered church courtyard with its life size statues of Jesus and saints seem a timeless paean to Poland’s Catholic heritage. But the year is 1962, and the sweet-faced 18-year-old novitiate Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) can’t just continue to remain cloistered in this orderly convent that she’s lived in since her orphaned childhood. The mother superior informs her that before she can freely choose to take her vows she must face hers, and her country’s, past by meeting—surprise—her one living relative.
After taking her first railroad ride to a city, she still wears her habit when she knocks on the apartment door of her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) with a burning question: “What am I?” Wanda isn’t too drunk, yet, to realize she’s her sister Rosa’s daughter, Ida Lebenstein. Her response to her younger relative: “So you are a Jewish nun.” She pulls out photographs of Anna’s parents from their home in Lublin. Anna then insists on visiting their graves, and Wanda has time on her hands since she’s just been suspended for anti-Socialist activities from her longtime job as a Communist Party magistrate.
On the road, devout Anna stops to pray at churches, and cynical Wanda stops to drink at bars. The aunt wryly notes: “I’m a slut and you’re a saint.” When they arrive at the family’s old house, the current owners insist “There are no Jews here.” Their journey turns into a mystery as they follow clues to find the old farmer who is said to be the last to remember the Lebenstein family. Wanda still has her magistrate identification and knows how to bully information out of petty bureaucrats and villagers.
Along the way, they pick up a young handsome hitchhiking Coltrane-loving saxophonist, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). He’s on his way to a gig celebrating the town’s 550th anniversary, and he invites them to the dance. Amidst the celebrations, memories keep coming back to Wanda, and she gets drunk again.
As Anna hunts down the awful truth of what happened to their family, the revelations defy the myths and stereotypes the Communists perpetuated about the Nazi occupation, about the fate of Jews in small towns, about the resistance, and, especially, guilt, with some parallels to Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Polish drama Aftermath last year.
In interactions conveyed through the women’s very expressive faces and their actions rather than dialogue, Wanda tragically embraces the pain of her past, Anna seems to reject being Ida and reconnects to the church. When she explores her guilt, it feels like an Amish rumspringa, where teenagers test life outside their religious restrictions before deciding whether to commit, though her experimentation is sweet and not predictably simple. That sax player is pretty irresistible and the youthful sensuality recalls Pawlikowski’s colorfully libidinous My Summer of Love (2004).
The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography resonates to Polish master Andrzej Wajda’s treatment of similar subjects—the post-Holocaust Landscape After Battle (1970) and Man of Marble’s (1977) rebuke of Communist heroes—but with even more poetic lyricism besides the poignant social realism.