Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Viewed From: Goggleworks, Reading, PA


I don't know what it is about short titles, especially when they're proper nouns, that leaves me cold. Sean brought up Ida, as well as Joe, as possible reviews this month, and I thought 'eh.' But many times this means nothing. Mud is a great film, Her not so much (Hud, unsurprisingly falls somewhere in the middle).

The possible dullness was not helped by hearing that the film was Polish, Black and White, about a nun, and about the legacy of the Holocaust. As Sean can attest, I have absolutely no objection to subtitles at all, or about intricate stories about the everyday lives of people in very different times and places. In fact, I tend to like this stuff more than quirky stories of people sort of like me. But the combination of all of the features listed above, a title like Ida, and a boring (at first) picture of young nun in the snow on the poster, and I was preparing for a very serious and heavy lesson on Polish Catholicism and/or the (in)ability of the place to reckon with its participation in one of the great crimes in the history of humanity. I'd just seen Mother Joan of Angels, which (if you swap witchcraft for the Holocaust) has the same topics and location of Ida (though a wildly different aesthetic), and I wasn't sure if I was ready for another dreary trip through the gray and bloodied lands of Eastern Europe. 

Well, Ida was very much all of this...but still a great fucking movie. I mean, really good. The film is indeed gray, very gray, and starts with a group of nuns and novices (apprentice nuns) carving a statue of Jesus and eating silently some sort of gruel out of a communal bucket. I was expecting something like maybe Of Gods and Men or Andrei Rublev: deeply spiritual, mentally rewarding, and inspirational, but a challenge to actually sit through and watch.

Ida fortunately picks up, and picks up quickly, so that it is no major spoiler to say that Anna, one of the novitiate, learns very soon that before she can make her vows and become a full-fledged nun, she should meet with her only surviving relative, her very unnunlike Aunt Wanda. After a terse introduction, where the audience is led to believe that Wanda may be a prostitute, and will have nothing to do with her niece, Wanda has a moment of reckoning - it turns out she's a judge, and is spectacularly bored by what I imagine were the not very exciting show trials and false justice of communist-era Poland. Not only does Wanda rush back to the bus station to see Anna, but she then tells her the secret that sets the plot of the film in motion: Anna is actually Jewish, and her parents and entire family were killed during the Holocaust. Anna is actually Ida, more specifically Ida Lebenstein, which quickly gets her thinking about whether the Catholic nunnery is the way to go.

Why Wanda changes her mind is unclear at first, but it becomes apparent that the arrival of her niece can provide a way to finally answer the questions surrounding the disappearance of the Lebenstein family. Why did Anna and Wanda survive? What was the role of the people in the town where nearly all of the Jews had lived? What about their house, and the people who briefly sheltered the family? How could people simply go missing, without anyone saying or doing anything? More broadly: how can people simply forget? What do we stand to gain (and lose) from remembering?

Though the themes are deep, the exploration is conventional, as the travels of Anna and Wanda quickly take on the trappings of a classic genre: the mismatched couple on a road trip. Anna is young, inexperienced, very Catholic, and almost completely ignorant about the real world, having been taken into the nunnery as an orphan. Wanda is quite (ahem) knowing and experienced, and is deeply cynical about people, in particular Christians. Agata Kulesza's Wanda is a truly frightening and powerful force, smoking, knocking back vodka, interrogating townspeople who should know more, and generally portraying the kind of rage you might expect when someone, after years of repression, suddenly embarks to discover the killers of her family (in a side note, Wanda may also be repenting for her years as a highly effective and brutal judge in the corrupt and violent courts of 1950s Poland - she's no doubt made other families disappear). There is even a hitchhiker in the film, whose arrival (and very good sax rendition of Coltrane's Naima) stirs up more repressed feelings. No matter the stakes, they are a very enjoyable pair to watch.

Though the story and writing is good enough to propel the film, it's helped by very economical filming. I  And I don't just mean the pleasant 80 minute run-time. A shovel here, a glimpsed forest there, and we are given volumes of meaning. Except for the final shot, which is jarringly (and notably) filmed as a handheld shot, I don't think the camera moves a single time. Kind of interesting - there are scenes of action, and the film is propulsive in its narrative, but the camera and perspective is static. As I indicated earlier, it's not entirely clear that it's a good thing for Wanda and Anna to look into the past, and the respective fates of the two characters may lead viewers to different conclusions about whether they should really want to know what happened to their family. Both main characters end up doing something that could be seen as a direct result of their search...or doing something that would have happened anyway. Maybe their shocking discoveries altered the fate of their lives? Maybe they changed nothing? The film's lack of easy psychoanalysis sheds a complicated light on discovery, one that might make our own struggles with the past seem less determinative.

Economical may be the wrong word, but saying that the film is beautiful seems almost too pat, as if anyone could simply film in black and white a stunning young women, wearing a habit (and sometimes less), make her trudge through the snow and forest, and call it a day. But director Pawlikowski does much more than this, as the composed shots, projected in old-fashioned box format, are each a study in composition. But they are really beautiful, as are the women in the film, as is the story, as is the past. Am I going too far here Sean - this is a great film, right?



Ida is indeed a great film, certainly one of the year's best - from both a technical and storytelling perspective. I love when a film is deliberate with when and how it gives you the next bit of info to move the story forward and Ida does this as immaculately as it frames the characters in its images.

As you say, the film does take on a traditional road movie vibe once the plot kicks into motion - complete with clashing personalities of the sober Anna and the acerbic Wanda. But the character of aunt Wanda, and Agata Kulesza's performance, is revelatory. The way the pieces of her backstory fall into place the further they dig into their family's past is the stuff of Shakespeare. Ida treats the third-act reveal that changes everything that came before it with a deft, touching grace that gives this tragic story a feel of inevitability that makes it easier to sit with, despite it's heaviness.

If there is one plot contrivance that is a bit too tidy, it is this hitchhiker Szymon. Initially he does just serve as a hunky thing to stir up more doubt in our prospective nun but he comes to represent something more important - a positivity to the future of Poland. Ida is the first movie to come out of Poland that discusses this issue of their involvement in the treatment of Jews during WWII. Wanda, at least at the beginning, nicely encapsulates this denial or refusal to come to terms with the past in much the way that Poland itself has. On this trip they take, both Anna and Wanda and Poland are at the figurative crossroads so it suits the film that there is a glimmer of a bright future represented in Szymon and jazz to balance out the grim past they're trudging through.

Szymon and Ida in the 'Sky Room'
I feel I could go on forever about how much I liked the cinematography in this film. Indeed the composition on display here is fascinating and makes even the quietest moments of the film a bit electrifying. I especially took to the use of the boxy Academy ratio and what they are calling the "sky room" in this film. Often we'll see the characters framed towards the bottom of the film, giving off an "isolation below, inspiration from above" feeling that seems to me to be pretty unique to Ida. This technique almost seems simple in a way as it is like giving room in the frame for thought balloons that aren't there and yet are deeply felt anyway. I'll lead you here for a great discussion on how this film was shot:

I find it interesting, especially after discussing how the black and white A Field In England was shot digitally, how Ida feels so timeless. One of the issues I had with A Field In England was how the digital aspect made it look like something modern trying to cover up the fact. Cutting it some slack and taking into account its inspirations, I notched it up to the idea it was trying to give off a "reenactment" feel, for better or worse. Ida takes digital black and white to a very special place and I think the link above explains the pains you have to go through to shake that modern feel off of your film if you are using this technique. In a way it's like that technique you hear about with make-up - how to achieve the "no make-up" look with just the right amount of make up. Ida does this and goes further by using all these format and lighting decisions to add depth to the story and characters.

There really isn't much to criticize in Ida. I feel like every choice made is fully thought out here. From the bolted-down cameras to having no score and only allowing for sounds or music that are coming from within the scenes. It all helps the viewer get inside these two character's heads and in the case of Anna, it still remains a tough nut to crack. For a first time performer, I find Agata Trezbuchowska to be perfectly suited for the role. Perhaps I tend to like hearing these stories of someone plucked from a cafe to be cast in a movie but after watching the Ida I can only think it would be a detriment to cast someone else in this role - especially a real actress who might try to cram more emoting into the role.

There's an argument to be made both ways for whether the main character in the film is Anna or Wanda. Either way, Anna is the one who begins and ends the story and leaves you asking questions about her choices. While Wanda is definitely the more relatable character and in that way I understand even her most shocking of choices. Through her we get a good representation of the human capacity for regret and, yes, perhaps a warning against journeys through the past. But as tragic as the outcome is, I feel the film gives us ample evidence that it was one that needed to be taken - again, much like Ida does with Poland's own past and for its own good in order to move forward. It's not like Wanda was in a good place before Anna showed up at her door. And Anna, on the other hand, acts as the viewer surrogate in many ways and nicely remains a bit of an enigma throughout the film. As it should be.


Good to see we're in agreement here on the complete mastery exhibited in this film. In the great post you linked about the lighting and cinematography, the author notes Pawlikoski's insistence on a balance between what he calls the "four legs" of film: structure, acting, photography, and sound. This film certainly has all of this, and, as remarkable as it is for each element, it really is this balance that makes the film so engaging, and why it appears to be unanimously praised.

I'm glad you got to the "sky room" shots, which I forgot to mention. The idea is helped I think, by the wise decision to place the subtitles at the top of the screen for these shots, which makes the thought/speech bubble idea almost literal. There is a great deal of life that is beyond these characters - not only the timeless question of theodicy, but the basic questions about the location of their family's remains (an importance unfortunately reinforced by the recent anguish of Dutch citizens for the remains of their families in a Ukrainian wheat field, whose presence is a stark reminder of how many died, unmarked, in the fields of Eastern Europe). This is an inventive, yet not too intrusive, device, to bring meaning through image alone.

I was surprised to hear that this was the first film from Poland to deal with Polish complicity in the Holocaust. This almost seems impossible, but I guess communist-era Poland was built on the myth of a unified anti-German front, and it's only been possible to touch on these ideas fairly recently. As this 1997 story from the New York Times indicates, a decade after liberation from communism, Poland was nowhere near confronting the atrocities of the past - towns where 1/2 the residents had been Jewish in the 1930s had no collective memory of this community even existing. I remember reading somewhere, unlinkable, that there were towns in Poland now who have almost a touristic revival of Jewish life in the cities, which if true may be part of a collective reckoning. While Poland is nowhere near unique in its difficultly in dealing with the past (the equally astonishing novelty of 12 Years a Slave in the US should keep anyone from casting stones), I still would have thought a film would have been made before this. In any case, the country is fortunate that the initial steps, at least artistically, have been made in such a well-crafted and sensitive film.

What this recognition may mean, however, is another story. Germany has certainly reckoned with its past, and now seems like, well, Szymon - generally happy and free of concern with the past or even future. From abroad it seems like a place where good-natured soccer taunts are the worst we hear about a country that, three generations ago, intentionally slaughtered 12 million people and brought on a war that cost another 40 million lives. And maybe Szymon does represent a kind of easy escape (Jazz, wife, children, happiness) but it's notable that his innocent pleasure-seeker is the minor character here - his path is not open to Anna or Wanda. Palikowski may have tried to open Polish eyes to its history, but there's no sense in the film that the truth will set anyone free. That, it seems, is left to Coltrane.

Here's a good interview where Pawlikoski explains what he does better than we do:

Here it's noted (down the page) why Ida basically means everyone should abandon color film-making:

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