The most impressive aspect of Ida, the 2014 EFA champion and Polish Golden Globe nominee from director Pawel Pawlikowski, is without a doubt the stark visual staging and meticulous shot composition. Unlike Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley — another awards season foreign language contender — the visual beauty of Ida meshes seamlessly with the story rather than overwhelming it. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska plays the young nun-in-training of the film’s title, and her forays from the convent into what some might call “the real world” provide the framework for Ida.
Ida was essentially born into her role in the convent, abandoned as a child and only now old enough to venture out. She’s nearly ready to take her final vows and become a full-fledged nun (“It’s morphin’ time!”) but before she does, she leaves the convent to track down her estranged aunt and get a little taste of the outside world. It’s not long before this Catholic nun discovers a truth about her past: she’s Jewish. This is only the first of many threats to Ida’s identity, one focused squarely in the past and in the present, and the revelation of the love and struggle and verve of the world outside the convent shakes up Ida’s future.
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Aside from the title, the majority of Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is refreshingly original in the way it tackles a familiar story. Perhaps Das finstere Tal, the Austrian title, makes more sense in native tongue and context – but if you don’t care to brush up on your Austrian beforehand The Dark Valley is still to be enjoyed. Prochaska’s resume shows he’s been fairly prolific over the past few years, but most of his projects are horror flicks or TV shows. The Dark Valley looks to be his most mature feature effort thus far.
Sam Riley stars as the lone drifter Greider, largely the strong and silent type, recently arrived at a remote snowbound village high in the Alps. The aforementioned “familiar story” is really just that: mysterious stranger arrives in otherwise comfortable close-knit town, people become uncomfortable; secrets exist for the townsfolk and for the drifter, said secrets are exposed; drifter and young woman flirt with obligatory fling; things seem okay for a while until suddenly, one day, shit hits the fan. These by-the-numbers plot points are most at home in a Western, which is a genre that The Dark Valley is now a part of in spite of the snowy mountain setting (though, agreed, not technically a Western in the American sense – so, an Eastern?), but that familiarity is never crippling. As much as The Dark Valley resembles Once Upon a Time in the West on paper, it’s a starkly different kind of movie.
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