Louise Archambault’s Irena’s Vow: Sorrow and Survival
Review by Maurie Alioff – Québec Correspondent
(September 12, 2023 – Toronto, ON) A Tiff 2023 selection, Irena’s Vow opens on a closeup of the real-life heroine’s exquisite face, a shot that re-occurs at the end of Louise Archambault’s heart-wrenching story about the trials and tribulations of a young Polish woman in Nazi-Occupied Warsaw. Archambault crash-cuts to a hospital where Irena (Sophie Nélisse, pictured above), a hardworking nurse, comes close to being destroyed in a bomb blast. Soon after, she is a forced labourer under the thumb of the German occupation.
While an S.S. officer’s satanic malevolence departs from any semblance of humanity (he whistles merrily during a hanging), Archambault depicts regular soldiers as monstrously cruel – with the exception of one character who eventually redeems himself. The Germans are insanely arrogant in their assumption they have the right to dominate people’s lives. In our current reality, where the will of powerful people to dominate simply because they think they should, Archambault’s film has a frightening resonance. Nazi occupation leading to mass murder is the extremity of the toxins that are in our air now.
Forced to contribute to the German “war effort,” Irena displays skill, resourcefulness, and compliant hard work, graduating from a tailor shop, where she “supervises” Jews, to kitchen, to becoming the housekeeper for a powerful officer (Dougray Scott). In the movie’s startling descent to the worst, Irena witnesses a horrifying atrocity. Nélisse’s depiction of overwhelming shock and sorrow, and her ongoing portrayal of the mask of impassiveness that allows her to survive, will be recalled as one of the year’s richest performances in a Canadian film.
Written by Dan Gordon (The Assignment, The Hurricane), and based on his own stage play, Irena’s Vow recalls Schindler’s List when Irena risks her life by protecting a group of Jews in the basement of a Nazi occupied villa. Somehow, she orchestrates impeccable dinner parties where German officers engage in genteel chit-chat and crackpot discussions about the “science” of destroying people, while she feeds and protects the Jews she has vowed to keep alive.
The film emphasizes the victimized Jews’ individuality as business people, artists, and professionals who lost everything. When a young married woman gets pregnant, the doctor in the group offers to abort the baby, but Irena, a strict catholic won’t allow it. Ignoring consequences and acting on her morality and faith, she comes up with strategy after strategy. The narrative builds on Irena’s determined reactions to one trap after another, near misses that can seem improbable, even impossible if much of the story weren’t true. Post-credit titles update the audience on the fates of the actual characters, and one in particular is mind-boggling in its happy outcome.
A Poland-Canada coproduction, Irena’s Vow is a classic period piece that could have been produced by Robert Lantos. The mise-en-scène is often uncannily immaculate. The fugitive Jews are well-dressed and coiffed. The English language dialogue can be on-the-nose.
But as in her previous feature, 2019’s And the Birds Rained Down, Archambault expresses her fascination with human beings who defy the odds and thrive. As she told me at the time during a Tiff interview, “It’s basic. We want love, being loved, and dignity. That’s human nature.”
Irena’s Vow will have its final screening at TIFF tomorrow, September 13 at 6:05pm at Scotiabank Theatre.
Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times. He is the Québec Correspondent for northernstars.ca.