Wednesday, June 25, 2014


This review also appears in the Portland Observer, here:

The Holocaust continues to be a popular film subject, but with ever more widely uneven results. To be sure, there are many worthy stories left to be told of courage and unrectified wrongs, and of the long-term effects of systemic evil on the human spirit. But many such films get derailed by complicated plots, or they plow old ground, thereby missing the universal questions lurking in stories of the Shoah.

"Ida," the first Polish-language film of British director Pawel Pawlikowski (a native Pole who has lived his adult life in the UK), avoids those pitfalls in part by keeping its focus particular. Its subject is an 18-year-old orphan, Anna, who has a lived a sheltered life in a rural convent and is preparing to take her vows to become a nun. It is 1962, and life in Soviet Poland is evidently austere, but especially so for solemn Anna. Her days are marked by work and quiet rituals, which she performs with devotion.

Anna is not happy when her Mother Superior tells her that she has one living relative, an aunt, whom she must visit before she takes her vows. The film demonstrates the confines of Anna's world, and her wish to remain inside them. Only duty could lure her outside the convent; she little imagines the duty to which she may be called once she ventures outside.

She travels to the city to meet her aunt, who is as different from Anna as it is possible to imagine. A former state prosecutor in the political show trials of the early 1950s, Anna’s only living relative came to be known as "Red Wanda," and presumably sent many people termed enemies of the Communist state to their deaths. Wanda is now a judge and a Communist party insider. She also is plainly as cynical as Anna is devout. After a brief encounter in which she bluntly tells Anna that she is a Jew, that her real name is Ida, and that her parents (including Wanda's sister) were presumably killed during the war, she sends Anna on her way, as though there is nothing more to be said.

At first ready to leave, Anna does so -- but soon turns back. She may lack the experience of her aunt, but she exhibits a kind of intuition that could well be assisted by years of spiritual practice. Wanda is ready for her. Anna strongly resembles the sister she lost 18 years before, and seems to have awakened something in her.
Neither woman displays any sentimentality, but Anna is curious. Wanda tells her of her mother's idealism and her artistic temperament. Anna wants to see where her parents are buried; Wanda advises her that it is unlikely there will be a grave to visit, but offers to take Anna to the home about which it seems she had not thought to be curious. They travel by car to the small community where Anna's parents lived, to find out what happened to them.

Soon, in encounters with local men who have succeeded in erasing members of her family, Wanda is demonstrating the ruthless interrogatory skills that she presumably honed as a state prosecutor. She needs them because, two decades after the war, no one is talking. It seems that all traces of Ida and her parents have disappeared--except Wanda knows different. Though she also has not been back in two decades, something about Anna's appearance on her doorstep has sparked in Wanda a determination as fierce as the energy she must have devoted to other pursuits.
Most of the film is devoted to the journey of the women to find what happened to Ida's parents. Wanda, rarely without a drink and a cigarette, is all hard edges, hardly a suitable protector. She is as devoted to materialism as her niece is to piety, invoking judicial immunity when she is arrested for drunk driving and attracting male attention more by habit than genuine interest.

The young woman clearly and frequently finds Wanda's behavior repellant, and resists her aunt's encouragement to seek out a little action since otherwise her chastity vows won't mean anything. Anna seems unaware of her effect on a young saxophonist, Lis, who Wanda picks up hitchhiking. But there are signs of a barely perceptible awakening in the understated novitiate, especially when she hears Lis playing John Coltrane.

There is, of course, a Holocaust story here, and it is a tragic one. The two women react to what they find with a shared determination to honor the memory of their lost family members. But in this spare film, the journey has its impact on each, deeply felt if not explained.

Pawlikowski shoots in black-and-white -- or, more accurately, luminous shades of gray. He uses long, still shots so carefully composed that they feel frameable, and often places his human subjects at the bottom of the screen, as if locating them within a larger expanse. We hear music only when the characters do, and it subtly conveys something of the spirituality of the setting; Polish pop music creates a hasty clamor to accompany the journey in Wanda's car, American jazz exerts its subtly subversive pull, and Wanda has a collection of classical LPs that provide glimmers of an inner life. Without seeming fussy, the film displays the subtlety and care of a Vermeer.

We sense huge shifts happening in both women, though this is more from the quality of the filmmaker's attention than from any overt psychologizing. If you let it, the film will leave you in a place of reflection -- about how a young person can unknowingly carry her family's history in her very bones; about what might drive a person to grab at power, even destructive power, in response to profound powerlessness. In a way, each woman has already been living in response to the deep losses she carries in her body.
The effect of the film's journey on Ida is unresolved. She attempts a return to take her vows, and finds that she cannot easily step back into her former life. It seemed to me that she had not so much lost her faith as found that it required her to struggle with different questions. Although perhaps without knowing it, Anna's mother superior has set her on a truer spiritual path.

[You can catch this lovely film at Livingroom Theaters in Portland, and it will be available on demand and on DVD in September.]

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