Polish veteran Andrzej Wajda returns with his strongest movie in some years with “Holy Week,” a small but finely played drama, set during the April 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, that could see Eurotube and cable play. Though the 70 -year-old helmer isn’t working at full tilt here, there’s a confidence in approach and character observation that could only come from a filmmaker in the autumn of his career.
Based on a short story by Wajda’s favorite writer, Jerzy Andrzejewski, pic initially centers on Irena (Beata Fundalej), a Jew who’s managed to escape from the ghetto and is taken in by a former b.f., Jan (Wojciech Malajkat), now living in a leafy suburb with his wife, Anna (Magdalena Warzecha), and younger brother, Julek (Jakub Przebindowski).
Everyone is well aware that sheltering Jews means a bullet from the Gestapo, but Jan and company go along with sheltering Irena, even though she’s a prickly customer. Anna, a Catholic whose family has suffered under the Germans, is glad for a chance at payback, and Julek, who goes off to join the Resistance, chides his elder bro for his chronic lack of commitment.
When the other tenants learn that Irena is being hidden in the apartment block, they start getting nervous, and some are openly hostile. A black-market dealer (Bozena Dykiel) demands she be thrown out, and her husband (Cezary Pazura) tries to rape Irena. An elderly member of a neighborhood council (veteran Wojtek Pszoniak) patiently explains he’s forced to register Irena whether he likes it or not. Gradually, Irena’s presence becomes untenable.
Set during a few days in Easter Week, pic is like a glimpse through a keyhole at larger events playing outside. Life goes on in the quiet district, with only burning buildings on the horizon or the occasional appearance of German troops on motorcycles hinting at the terrible slaughter taking place a few miles away.
Most striking about the drama is that, rather than turning wholly on familiar WWII Jewish themes, it is an ensemble portrait of average Poles dragged into a conflict they’d prefer to ignore. In addition, Irena(testily played by Fundalej) is hardly a sympathetic character: She makes little attempt to hide her presence , and is openly scornful of Poles sympathetic to the Jews. Guilt, she claims, is the driving force; after the war, people will start to resent the fact that Jews will be back in circulation.
Tightly shot in almost TV style, and with little music, the film spins almost entirely on its dialogue and the fine work by cast, none of whom (except Pszoniak) are major-caliber stars, but all of whom meld well. Wajda is confident enough to trust his script and cast, and at a trim hour and a half, pic doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Tech credits are all fine. Lead producer, Lew Rywin’s Heritage Films, was the local service company on “Schindler’s List.”