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Irena’s Vow (Christian Movie Review)

About the Film 

“What does it matter who we are? What we do is who we are.” Irena Gut was a Polish nurse who lived during the horrors of German occupation in World War II. Based on a remarkable true story, Irena’s Vow—a film adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name—showcases Gut’s heroic deeds and the sacrifices she made to save twelve Jews’ lives. Equal parts sobering and inspiring, Irena’s Vow is an incredible story of moral courage and one of the most powerful films of the year.       

Narratives set against the historical backdrop of WWII are plentiful. There have been several other notable tales told recently of heroic people sheltering Jews from the Nazi regime. Even so, there is something unique about Irena’s Vow being told from the perspective of an ordinary young woman. The movie is a testimony to the power of one faithful life.        

At times, Irena’s Vow is difficult to watch (intentionally so). The movie is rated R and features one particularly shocking moment of violence (see “content to consider” below). The evil on display is narratively appropriate and contextualizes the extent and urgency of Irena’s sacrifices. I chatted with Dan Gordon, the writer of both the stage play and the film adaptation (as well as a personal friend to the real Irena), and Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Irena’s daughter. Both shared that the incredible story was too big to fit within a single film’s runtime.  

The film’s craftsmanship provides a suitable vehicle for the story. Actress Sophie Nélisse is excellent in the lead role, embodying both Irena’s unwavering moral strength and her fear. The movie was filmed on location in Poland, giving a more tactile and authentic feel to the sets. Everything is competently crafted and never distracts from the movie’s most important quality: the story.    

Irena’s Vow is a powerful film in which the emotion never feels cheap or manipulative. It inspires without being sentimental; it’s raw and honest—sometimes shockingly so—but never gratuitous; it entertains without diminishing the severity of the true events. The film also conveys a strong pro-life message without coming across as preachy.  

The real Irena was a woman of steadfast faith, and Irena’s Vow doesn’t shy away from that foundational aspect of her character. The film shares some similarities to Cabrini in that the lead character’s faith is most evident through her action and love for people. Gut’s “vow,” which gives the film its title, is one she made to God never to stand by if she had the power to save a life.    

Irena’s Vow may not wow audiences with any single element, but it possesses something Hollywood often lacks: a story worth telling. Irena Gut lived an inspirational life. Irena’s Vow may be a historical drama, but her example is as needed today as ever.

On the Surface

For Consideration

Beneath The Surface

Engage The Film

Confronting Evil with Moral Courage    

In the immediate aftermath of an act of shocking violence committed against a mother and her infant, Irena says, “I have seen things I shouldn’t. Terrible things. Horrible things.” In response, an older man remarks, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” It’s not that the man doesn’t care about the plight around him but that he doesn’t yet possess the courage to confront it. Instead, he counsels Irena to keep her eyes on her feet and to focus on taking one step at a time.   

Having seen horrors with her own eyes, however, Irena feels compelled to act. Her “vow” is that she would never stand by and refuse to act if she had the opportunity to save a life. The depiction of that violent moment in the film is a continuation of the film’s theme that one cannot confront evil before first seeing and acknowledging it.

Abortion & The Value of Life    

Hiding in the house of those who want to kill you is not the ideal environment for giving birth and nurturing a newborn. Thus, when a Jewish woman becomes pregnant, the others see an abortion as the only feasible option.   

But after everything Irena has experienced, she is unwilling to retrieve the required medical supplies, citing her religion and her conviction that the act is a matter of life and death: “We have to live. Otherwise, the Hitlers of the world have won.” She is unwilling to witness another Jewish baby lost, implicitly attributing dignity to the life in the womb as well as to the life outside of it. The mother ultimately keeps the child, and video clips of the real-life child are shown at the end of the film, celebrating the life that was saved.   

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