Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Movie Review: Ida

Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski.
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Starring: Agata Kulesza (Wanda), Agata Trzebuchowska (Anna), Dawid Ogrodnik (Lis), Jerzy Trela (Szymon), Adam Szyszkowski (Feliks), Halina Skoczynska (Mother Superior), Joanna Kulig (Singer).

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida accomplishes a very tricky thing –in that the film at once feels like a classic of European art cinema from the 1960s, and yet breaks new ground in regards to telling a story about the atrocities committed against the Jews in WWII. At times it feels like we have seen so many Holocaust dramas over the years that the films that even the good ones start to blend together, and no longer have quite the same impact they once did. This is what happens when so many films – in many different genres, aimed at different audiences – tell what essentially amounts to the same story. Most of the films have concentrated on telling those rare stories about survivors, instead of the stories about those who didn’t make survive. Ida is different in many ways – not least of which because the films characters – both good and bad – are all Polish. The Nazis don’t really make any appearance at all, but are simply background information. What’s more, the films doesn’t divide people simply along the lines of good and evil – it’s more complicated than that.

The movie takes place in the early 1960s. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an orphan – a novice nun about to take her final vows. The Mother Superior insists that before she do that, she visit her only surviving family member – her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). The first of many revelations in the film happens almost immediately upon Anna meeting Wanda – namely that her real name is Ida – and she was born a Jew. Her parents were killed in the war, but Anna survived. When Anna asks Wanda why she didn’t raise her herself, Wanda responds bluntly “I didn’t want to. You wouldn’t have been happy here”. Wanda couldn’t be more different than Anna – she smokes, she drinks, she sleeps with random men. She was once a big time Prosecutor for the Communist party – but now she sees herself as a nobody – a low ranking Judge, who presides over meaningless cases – although she still retains at least the last vestiges of power. The pair hit the road together, to go to Anna’s parents’ hometown, to discover what exactly happened to them, and where they are buried.

The film is filmed in black and white – and it’s mainly a beautiful black and white. Shot in the narrower aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Pawlikowski often shoots his characters – in particular Anna/Ida in the lower part of the screen only – sometimes just in the corner – as she is dwarfed – overwhelmed if you will – by the background. The camera doesn’t move as it stares at Anna/Ida for long periods of time, where she often says nothing, and whose face doesn’t betray many emotions. This is a deliberate echo of the films of Robert Bresson – and the effect is similar to that master’s films, as we are kept at arm’s length for the story.

The two performances at the heart of the movie are both equally brilliant, and completely different from each other. Anna/Ida has had her entire world flipped upside down by one revelation after another, and yet she doesn’t let it show. She maintains her politeness to everyone she meets – even as they casually insult Jews, or more accurately treat them as an afterthought. Even in the films most dramatic sequence – when the truth about what happens becomes clear – she doesn’t show any real emotion – which somehow makes it more powerful – and worse for the character who confesses his sins to her. She will not condemn him – but she won’t forgive him either. But the journey effects Anna/Ida deeply – she appears at one point ready to make a major change in her life – but the final shots show her returning to the comfort of what she knows. Perhaps what came before was simply her way of following her Aunt’s advice about making her vows mean something. It is a very still, silent performance by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, but a brilliant one.

As Wanda, Agata Kulesza has the showier of the two roles. Her anguish, anger, bitterness and grief shows from her first appearance to her last. She has taken on the weight of her countries sins, and seems to be punishing herself for them – along with her own sins, real or perceived. She isn’t above using her name to bully people into doing what she needs them to do – but she’s hardly a Communist true believer either. She wanted the power she had to punish those she felt were guilty – and didn’t really care what was behind that power. She is at war with herself – and it’s one she eventually loses.

At only 80 minutes, Ida feels like the perfect length for this movie. It is a slow and contemplative movie, and it’s one of those films that the unobservant will complain that “nothing happens”, and others will feel is simply depressing. It isn’t either of those things – although the subject matter is dark, this is not a depressing film for me. The presence of a jazz saxophonist – who the women pick up hitchhiking, and proceed to watch him perform with his band – adds moments of lightness to the proceedings – a glimpse at what life may have been like for both Wanda and Anna/Ida had the events of the movie not happened.

Pawlikowski is a talented director. The only one of his films I saw previous to this was 2004’s My Summer of Love – which shares almost nothing in common with Ida, except that both are beautiful, contemplative films. He took some time off from filmmaking after that, not directing another feature until 2011’s Ethan Hawke thriller – The Woman in the Fifth (unseen by me – the reviews were mixed at best). Ida seems to be a step forward for him. Although born in Poland, he was raised in England – where he still lives. Ida seems to be him reckoning with his old country’s past – something still rather controversial if the reaction to last year’s Aftermath is any indication. Ida is a thoughtful, beautiful, haunting, ultimately tragic film – and a wonderful one.

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