The Arty Semite

David Ives Tells Truths About Roman Polanski

By Dorri Olds

Playwright David Ives got a telephone message from Roman Polanski: “I love your play and want to turn it into a movie.” The two didn’t know each other. Imagine getting a voicemail like that.

It would be an oversimplification to say Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is about sadomasochism, but technically it is. It’s about sex and power and humiliation, yet there’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s more a study of the nature of human relationships — to dominate or be dominated. It’s seen through the prism of two lonely people on the edge, played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, an actor who looks eerily like a younger Polanski.

When you throw Polanski’s name into this story — that of a man who’s successfully avoided prosecution for raping a minor — the project takes on a new significance. But, as with Woody Allen, Polanski’s supreme artistry can overshadow what we don’t know and don’t want to know.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Ives, who spoke about his collaboration with Polanski for their “Venus in Fur” screenplay and to elaborate on his time spent with a genius on the lam.

Dorri Olds: Where did you meet Polanski?

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Israeli Actress Moran Atias Talks 'Third Person' and 'Tyrant'

By Dorri Olds

“Third Person,” written and directed by Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”), tells three love stories about passion, trust and betrayal. “In any relationship,” Haggis said, “there is always a third person present in some form.”

Israeli actress Moran Atias, who starred in the TV series “Crash,” pitched the idea of a multi-plotline film about love and relationships to Haggis. “Third Person” is the result, and Atias plays Roman beauty Monika in the movie. Atias stars opposite Adrien Brody as one of the three fraught couples. The all-star cast includes Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Maria Bello and Kim Bassinger.

Atias had worked directly with Haggis and Neeson when she starred in Haggis’s 2010 crime drama, “The Next Three Days.” Born and raised in Haifa, Atias later moved to Italy where she starred in several Italian films including the thriller “Gas.” Additionally, she worked for modeling campaigns for Dolce & Cabana, Roberto Cavalli and Versace. After much success in Italy she returned to Israel. Currently Atias lives in Los Angeles and stars in the FX series, “Tyrant,” an American show that takes place in the Middle East.

The Forward caught up with Moran Atias for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: What inspired your idea for “Third Person?”

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Hero in Print, Villain at Home

By Allen Ellenzweig

Few of us ever face a moral decision with life or death consequences, or that threatens to influence, however feebly, the course of history. This may be one reason why the moral calculations of men and women who lived during the rise of the Third Reich and the Second World War prove so durable as the subject of literature and film.

“The Last Sentence,” director Jan Troell’s account of a renowned Swedish newspaper editor, Torgny Segerstedt, who wrote early and forcefully against Hitler in his editorials, presents us with one such man. Yet instead of portraying this valorous figure as totally heroic, Troell does something more complicated — he presents a man whose personal life contains a strong dose of moral failure.

From Troell’s earliest frames, shot in the classic black and white of the period in question, we are in the hands of a master film craftsman. (Troell is best known in America for his award winning “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”) Simple but compelling images of leaves floating on the surface of a clear shallow stream strike a poetic but also a philosophical note: Is the image a reminder of the way in which most of us “float” on the surface of life led by imperceptible currents?

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Terrorist Father, Ultra-Orthodox Mother

By Anne Joseph

The extraordinary documentary film, “Life Sentences,” was many years in the planning, says co-director Yaron Shani. Winner of the best documentary film at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, it will receive its UK premiere in London later this month during SERET, the Israeli Film and Television Festival.

“Life Sentences” tells the story of Nimer Ahmed, the son of Fauzi al Nimer, an Arab from Acre and an Israeli Jewish woman from Nahariya who married in the early 1960s after a whirlwind romance, much to the wrath of both their families. They had two children, Nimer, and a daughter. But without his family knowing, Fauzi Nimer was a notorious Palestinian terrorist who was eventually convicted of carrying out 22 terror attacks in Israel.

Nimer’s mother took her young children to Montreal where they embedded themselves among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, never discussing their father or the life they had left. Now married to his Muslim cousin living in Acre, Nimer has two children of his own, and although his story could be construed as yet another casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the film manages to delve deeply into the complexities of a life that beggars belief.

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When an Economic Crisis Hits Home

By Anne Joseph

There are times when Tom Shoval’s debut film, “Youth,” is deeply uncomfortable to watch. Set in an unnamed central Israeli suburb the film shows two teenage brothers who kidnap a wealthy girl in order to solve their family’s growing financial crisis. Tense, foreboding and menacing from the opening frame, the film, which won best feature at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, will receive its UK premiere later this month as part of SERET, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival.

“Youth” reflects Shoval’s close relationship with his brother, who is four years his junior and with whom he shares an almost telepathic relationship. ‘We have a very strong connection. He knows what I’m thinking even before I speak or the other way ‘round. We also look very similar and sometimes people confuse us,” he told the Forward. He describes being curious about the nature of their bond and decided “to try and translate this connection into cinema.”

The experience of economic hardship that befalls the family in the film also has autobiographical overtones. When Shoval’s father lost his job — a victim of the struggling middle class in Israel — he lapsed into depression and Shoval describes the ensuing tension in the family home. “My parents were trying to protect us, they didn’t really tell us what was happening. We were told that everything was going to be okay but my brother and I felt that something deeper and more frightening was going on.” It was a shock to see his father, his role model, suddenly becoming a shadow of himself, he says.

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Doug Liman on Action Movies and Shabbat With Dad

By Curt Schleier

Doug Liman made his reputation directing “Swingers,” a film that helped establish the viability of independent film, not to mention the careers of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. His personal favorite is “Go,” a movie he knows “no one saw.”

But certainly Liman is best known as an action director: “Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and now, “Edge of Tomorrow.”

The movie stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and is already the best reviewed of Liman’s films; it will restore luster to Cruise’s career, tarnished recently by “Oblivion,” “Rock of Ages” and “Knight and Day.”

Liman grew up in Manhattan, the son of Arthur Liman, who led the Iran Contra investigation. Liman spoke to the Forward about the art of making action movies, what Cruise is really like, and how Shabbat dinners with his dad prepared him for Hollywood.

Curt Schleier: Is there a secret to making action films?

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How Shep Gordon Became a Real 'Supermensch'

By Curt Schleier

Comedian Mike Myers found the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut: “Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

The title makes it sound like another Myers comedy, a Jewish “Wayne’s World” or “Austin Powers.” In fact, it is an extremely well-executed documentary about one of the most captivating figures in the history of rock and roll.

Shep Gordon is not someone you’ve likely heard of. He managed Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, and Pink Floyd (inexplicably for just nine days), among others. He created the celebrity chef category. And he lived a remarkable life — something between a frat boy’s fantasy and a rabbi’s delight.

Even better, from Myers’s point of view, Gordon is a brilliant raconteur with a vivid memory that apparently survived the prestigious amount of drugs he consumed. Part of Myers’s success here is simply based on his ability to point a camera and press record.

Gordon grew up in a Jewish family in Oceanside, New York, and accidentally found a career in show business after he was slugged in the face by Janis Joplin. A word of explanation:

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David Bezmozgis Turning 'Natasha' Into Film

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: David Franco

A decade after its publication, Canadian author David Bezmozgis is turning his debut short story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” into a film. As with “Victoria Day,” his first cinematic endeavor in 2009, Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, is both writing and directing the project.

The stories in the breakout “Natasha” chronicling the saga of the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish immigrant family to Toronto, were hailed by critics as “dazzling,” “scary good,” and “stunning.” The book was translated into 15 languages and won several prizes. Virtually unknown prior to the collection’s publication, the Riga-born Bezmozgis’s literary star rose with “Natasha.” His celebrated first novel, “The Free World,” was published in 2011, and will be followed this coming September by a second novel, “The Betrayers.”

The film version of “Natasha” will focus on the title story, which comes in the middle of the collection.

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Cannes Diary #5: Prizes and Farewells

By A.J. Goldmann

Getty Images

After 10 cinema-soaked days, the International Jury, headed by Jane Campion, dished out the prizes of the 67th Cannes Film Festival.

There were no multiple winners in a year when there were clearly not enough awards to go around. In fact, some have taken issue with the jury’s decision to award the Jury Prize to both Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” and Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D “Adieu au Langage.” Splitting the prize between the youngest and oldest directors in competition (Dolan is 25; Godard is 83), the jury was rectifying a long-standing oversight (Godard has never won a prize before at Cannes) and endorsing the work of a passionate and original new director. You would think that Dolan would be deeply honored to keep company with Godard, but apparently his tears onstage accepting the award masked his fury at not getting the Palme d’Or (the film that gets the Palme can’t score a win in an other category).

Russian filmmaker Alexei Serebriakov’s “Leviathan,” one of the final films to screen in competition, was something of a surprise winner for the screenplay award. A modern retelling of the Book of Job, it is a grim tale of government corruption and religious hypocrisy that is all the timelier in light of recent events in the expanding republic of Putinistan.

It came as little surprise when Timothy Spall was announced as Best Actor for his astonishing work in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” That Spall beat out Steve Carell –the other critical favorite — made sense in light of the directing award, which went to Bennett Miller, who became the first Jewish director to win the prize since Julian Schnabel in 2007 for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” His “Foxcatcher,” which was one of the stronger competition entries this year, is already being mentioned as a contender for next year’s Oscars. Julianne Moore, the Best Actress-winner for her Norma Desmond turn in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” was the only winner aside from Godard — who didn’t even bother showing up for his screening or press conference last week — not on hand to accept.

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Cannes Diary #4: Strong Women On Screen

By A.J. Goldmann

Of the themes to emerge during this year’s Cannes Film Festival — incest, dogs, neglected children — uncommonly strong women have been the most pervasive. This seems appropriate in a year where the jury is presided over by Jane Campion, the only woman to win a Palme d’Or in the history of the festival. As the festival opened, Campion accused the film industry of “inherent sexism.” Thierry Fremeux, who runs the festival, has by way of a rebuttal pointed out that one-fifth of the films in the official selection are by female directors, including two in competition.

But beyond films from the likes of Asia Argento, Alice Rohrwacher and Naomi Kawase, a surprising number of films this year are literally anchored by their tough, often-complex female protagonists. This holds true for Ronit Elkabetz as an Israeli woman fighting for a divorce in a rabbinical court in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” as well as Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother struggling to keep her job in “Two Days, One Night,” and Bérénice Bejo as an aid-worker trying to convince the UN of the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. By way of contrast, there haven’t been many memorable male characters or performances on offer — Timothy Spall and Steve Carell being notable exceptions.

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Cannes Diary #3: Cronenberg, Carell and the Infamous Strauss-Kahn

By A.J. Goldmann

There was a lot of buzz — and not necessarily the good kind of buzz — surrounding bad-boy director Abel Ferrera’s “Welcome to New York,” his fictionalized account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, which was screened on Saturday for press and market ahead of its VOD-only release in France (a theatrical rollout is planned for America later in the year). I was busy seeing the enigmatic and dreamy Italian competition entry “Le Meraviglie” (“The Wonders”) by Alice Rohrwacher during the screening and wild after-party, which reportedly vied with the film for obscenity and grotesquery. In the wake of the film’s release, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer said that the former International Monetary Fund chief planned to sue Ferrara for defamation. (DSK is reportedly “heartbroken and terrified” and refuses to see the film.)

After a long, party-studded weekend on the Croisette, David Cronenberg’s celebrity satire “Maps to the Stars” debuted in competition. With an all-star cast (Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson), the Canadian auteur’s first film shot in L.A. works best when savaging Hollywood culture, name-dropping (“Harvey’s producing and you know Harvey. Harvey is Harvey,” is one of the gems in Bruce Wagner’s screenplay), and mocking the lifestyles of the rich and weird. But the film is so busy making fun of child stars, personal shoppers, the vanity of aging actresses — shades of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” — and quack New Age therapists that it doesn’t bother to stop and think what it’s all about. There is also a central incest drama to the film, which creates an accidental resonance with Keren Yedaya’s “That Lovely Girl,” which was profiled in an earlier festival post.

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Why Jewish Film Festivals Are So Important

By Olivia Antsis

Thirty-four years ago, in two American cities on opposite coasts, a group of visionaries developed what would one day become one of the most powerful vehicles for connecting Diaspora Jews to their culture: the Jewish film festival.

With numerous scholarly works and studies devoted to dissecting the state of modern Jewry in America, the increasing popularity of Jewish film festivals has made one fact abundantly clear: Jews crave a meaningful connection to their roots. With over 100 Jewish Film Festivals in existence today, Jews all over the world flock to theaters anticipating an authentic connection to their heritage. For some Jews, participation in their local Jewish Film Festival is the only way in which they feel Jewish.

Does such a statement justify the prevailing attitude among Jewish leaders and professionals that the fabric of our once vibrant and engaged Jewish community is in danger of unraveling? While widely debated studies like the 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry points to a steady decline in religious identification and a significant rise in interfaith marriage, what do these statistics actually say about today’s Jewish community except that it is continually changing, evolving, and presenting new challenges?

As a Jewish professional working in the Jewish world, I have observed many of my colleagues grow disheartened by the possibility that the progress we have made in preserving Jewish culture is in danger of being compromised. My trepidation is that too much credence is being given to the results of quantitative surveys and not enough consideration is being paid to programs that are already working to establish a vibrant Jewish community.

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Cannes Diary #1: 'Mr. Turner' and Israeli Incest

By A.J. Goldmann

Amid clear sunny skies and swaying palm trees, the competition of the Cannes Film Festival opened on a strong note with British auteur Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” about the great painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh is one of the six Jewish directors who have films in the official competition section of the festival (others include the Canadian surrealist David Cronenberg and “The Artist”’s Michel Hazanavicius, whom we hope to profile later in the festival).

A beautifully sensitive period piece constructed with substance and subtlety, “Mr. Turner” is Leigh’s fourth venture to make it to the Croisette (his family drama “Secrets and Lies” won the “Palme d’Or,” the festival’s top prize, in 1996). It succeeds where main other biopics of painters have failed, both as an incisive character portrait and an engaging and finely wrought piece of filmmaking.

Thanks to brilliant cinematography and lighting, “Mr. Turner” achieves truly painterly effects. Much credit for the film’s success is due to Timothy Spall — one of Leigh’s regular actors — an absolutely overwhelming presence in the title role. Far from a hagiography, the film delivers a warts-and-all-portrait of the artist as an old man and Spall plays him with both sensitivity and oafishness.

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From the Nursing Home to Jerusalem

By Curt Schleier

David Gaynes’ documentary, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” answers the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. At the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., where the film was shot, both are the same.

Gaynes brought his camera to the nursing home, where the average age is 91, as some residents were preparing to tour Israel. The unavoidable first impression of their lives is depressing: the glass is less than half full.

The facility itself seems modern and clean. The staff seems helpful and caring. But still it is a waiting room for the funeral home, and there’s no way to pretty that up.

One of several residents we meet is Selma Rosenblatt, 93. She is bent over so far by osteoporosis that she can’t lift her head high enough to see in front of her. Recently, she says, a fellow resident died during a meal in the dining room, calling it “a wonderful way to go.”

Juna Wein, 89, says “it’s kind of dull for me here.”

Regine Arouette, 87, is Flemish and was a hidden child during the war. Her son and his family are in Belgium. “Sometimes I feel so lonely,” she says.

But, unexpectedly, despite the wheelchairs and walkers, Parkinson arms and other assorted ailments, the residents’ buoyant spirits begin to shine through.

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The Jew Who Fell in Love With Wagner

By Judy Maltz

(Haaretz) — The music of German composer Richard Wagner was never played in his parents’ home: Too many bad associations with Hitler and the Nazis, explains filmmaker Hilan Warshaw.

So it wasn’t until he began playing violin in a New York City youth orchestra that Warshaw was first introduced to the work of the notoriously anti-Semitic 19th-century German opera composer. And rather embarrassingly, he found himself smitten.

“I just loved the music. But, at the same time, it was something that my conscious mind told me was anathema,” he recalls.

Over the years, Warshaw – whose family lost many relatives during the Holocaust – developed what he describes as a “push-pull relationship” with Hitler’s favorite composer. And it made him curious about the other Jews in Wagner’s life.

So curious, in fact, that he decided to devote the past several years to making a film on the subject. The fruit of that effort, “Wagner’s Jews,” is playing in Tel Aviv at the Docaviv festival, Israel’s premier event for documentary film.

Produced, directed and written by Warshaw, the feature-length film focuses on the Jews who were some of Wagner’s closest associates, among them the gifted young pianist Carl Tausig, who was almost like a son to him; the conductor Hermann Levi, who happened to be the son of a rabbi; and the pianist Joseph Rubinstein, who lived in Wagner’s home for many years and killed himself when the composer died.

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Switched Identities in Israeli Film at Cannes

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Moviegoers who were moved by the surrealism and symbolism in Shira Geffen’s 2007 film “Jellyfish” (Meduzot in Hebrew) will be pleased to know that her equally fantastical new film, “Self Made,” debuts at Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival this month.

“Self Made” tells the story of two women — one Israeli and one Palestinian — who become trapped within one another’s worlds and find themselves living on the opposite side of the security fence from the one they usually live on. Michal (Sarah Adler), a famous Israeli artist in Jerusalem, falls off her bed one morning and loses her memory. She complains to the furniture company that made her bed, leading to the dismissal of Palestinian factory worker Nadine (Samira Saraya). Later, the two women fatefully meet at a border checkpoint, where, due to a soldier’s error, Michal is sent to a Palestinian refugee camp and Nadine to Michal’s home in Jerusalem.

“The swap leads them to discover their hidden desires, inaccessible in their previous lives,” states the film’s promotional material.

Geffen recently explained to Variety why it took her five years to make “Self Made” despite the success of her previous film (“Jellyfish” won the Camera d’Or and was an official selection at several festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival).

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To Somalia and Back Again

By Curt Schleier

Michael Maren has lived an Indiana Jones kind of life: Peace Corps volunteer, war correspondent from Africa, kidnap victim of a Somali warlord, author, and now filmmaker.

However, anyone expecting a hard-hitting documentary exposing the troubles of foreign aid (the subject of his book, “The Road to Hell”) is in for a surprise. In fact, if his film, “A Short History of Decay,” exposes anything, it is the frailty of life and the importance of family.

Nathan Fisher (Bryan Greenberg) is a blocked Brooklyn writer in a blocked relationship who heads to Florida when his father Bob (Harris Yulin) has a stroke and his mom Sandy (Linda Lavin), is suffering from early signs of Alzheimer’s.

Maren, 58, spoke to The Forward about why he went to Africa, why he left, and the genesis of the film.

Curt Schleier: You joined the Peace Corps and taught in rural Kenya after you graduated from college in the late 1970s. What prompted that?

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Portraits of Holocaust Heroism

By Curt Schleier

The title characters of filmmaker Michael King’s inspirational documentary, “The Rescuers,” are a dozen people, mostly diplomats, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

In many cases, they defied their own government’s specific instructions in order to arrange exit visas for families otherwise headed for extermination. Some of these stories are already reasonably well known.

There was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish first secretary in Budapest, who mysteriously disappeared after the Soviets drove the Nazis out of Hungary; Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice counsel in Budapest, featured character in the recent film, “Walking With the Enemy”; and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania credited with saving as many as 3,000 people.

Others are less familiar — at least to me — and, in some cases, unexpected. Selahattin Ulkumen, the Muslim Turkish consul in Rhodes, and Angelo Rotta, the Catholic Bishop in Budapest, helped save thousands. None is as surprising as Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi Party member and a German attache in Copenhagen. He arranged for Sweden to take in the city’s Jews, saving 7,200 lives.

It isn’t all about numbers, however. One of the rescuers was Princess Alice of Greece, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria and grandmother of Prince Charles, who hid a Jewish family in her Athens palace.

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How Shabbat Dinner Can Save America

By Curt Schleier

In the film “Fed Up,” opening May 9, the untenable reality pours down like a mid-summer rain:

  • In the United States, more people die from obesity than starvation.

  • 87% of food items on supermarket shelves have added sugars.

  • Teenagers are having gastric bypass surgery.

We’ve become a corpulent nation, which is not news to anyone who has spent a day at the beach and seen 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds overflow their bathing suits.

The documentary, from filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig, is executive produced by Laurie David, a social activist who served similar duties on the global climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She’s also the co-author with Kirstin Uhrenholdt of two cookbooks: “The Family Dinner,” about the importance of families eating together, and out last month, “The Family Cooks,” which includes over 100 easy-to-prepare recipes for healthy family meals.

David spoke to the Forward about how she came to the documentary, what she thinks it will accomplish, and how her Shabbat meals honor the homemade food ethic.

Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in this project?

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Polish Drama in Black and White

By Allen Ellenzweig

Shot in rich black and white, “Ida” is a quiet, deliberately paced study of the end of innocence for a young Polish woman, Anna, raised an orphan in a convent. It is the early 1960s. On the verge of taking her vows, the Mother Superior tells Anna that her only living relative, an aunt, wants to see her. This is posed to the young novitiate as a task she must take up before renouncing the outside world. Anna leaves on the necessary journey, her hair modestly covered with her novice’s hooding.

So begins Pavel Pawlikowski’s sober, sometimes poetic and atmospheric inquiry into the weight of history upon a single life. For Anna discovers through her aunt Wanda that her parents were Jews in hiding during the Second World War. Together, Anna — named Ida at birth — and Wanda go seeking the truth of her parents’ fate in a bleak, out-of-the-way village, where, through Wanda’s brisk, no-nonsense queries of the locals, the two women discover a barebones farmhouse where Ida’s parents were hidden. Meeting with the present owners, a wary couple raising a small child, and the man’s father who is on his deathbed in hospital, “Ida” and Wanda are led to the grim truth of her parents’ fate.

While this strand of the story leads to an outcome predictable in its tragic dimensions, the film’s other equally pressing concern is the uncertain fate of its main protagonists — “Ida” and her aunt Wanda. A darkly attractive and worldly woman in her 40s, Wanda yields to the innocent, reserved Anna no particular tenderness or kindness. If anything, she is determined to show herself unadorned: vaguely promiscuous, cynical, world-weary, and probably an alcoholic. After the war, she became a successful prosecutor for Poland’s Communist regime, capable of administering rough justice in line with the Party’s ideological needs. Now she must live with herself — meaning with her survivor’s guilt, and with the knowledge of her own moral failings.

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