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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Ida (2014)

* * * *

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza

All of her life she's known herself as Anna, a WWII orphan with no family save for the nuns who raised her in the convent since infancy. Now, on the verge of becoming a nun herself, she learns that she does have one surviving family member after all, an aunt, and that before being allowed to take her vows she must meet with her. When she does, she learns that her name is actually Ida and that she's Jewish. If she is shocked by these revelations, she does not show it; she accepts them with the same placidity with which she greets everything. All she says is that she'd like to visit their graves. A tricky request, as the aunt points out, given that they were Jewish and killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland. This is the starting point for Pawel Pawlikowski's remarkable Ida, a wonderful, moving, and sometimes surprisingly funny film.

Ida is set in 1960 and begins with a simple but visually beautiful sequence in which Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and the other novitiates carry a statue of Christ out to convent's courtyard. Shortly thereafter Anna is taken aside by her prioress, who explains that, contrary to what Anna has previously been told, she has an aunt who survived the war and with whom the convent has been in correspondence. The convent has, in fact, been sending letters to the aunt for years but it's only recently that she has responded and indicated a wish to meet her niece. Anna is ambivalent about making the journey to see her, but the prioress insists that it be done and tells her to stay as long as necessary so that she will truly be ready when it comes time to take her vows. Wanda (Agata Kulesza), the aunt, was a resistance fighter during the war and is now a Judge under the Communist regime. She was once known as "Red Wanda" for the way she prosecuted enemies of the state, but over time she has become disillusioned and, from what we see of her behind the bench, disinterested. She's a functioning alcoholic who treats Anna brusquely when they first meet (the gist of their first meeting is "nice to meet you, goodbye"), and then has a change of heart, seeking Anna out at the train station where she's waiting to return to the convent and bringing her back to her apartment to show her photos of the family, including Anna's parents and a little boy that Anna assumes was her brother until Wanda corrects her without explicitly explaining the obvious: that the boy was her son.

Anna would like to pay her respects by visiting the graves of her parents, but Wanda informs her that there are no graves to visit. Though the family escaped being taken to a concentration camp, they were murdered while hiding in the woods outside their village and their burial spot is unknown - except that there may still be a man in the village who knows the spot, that being the man that Wanda assumes did the deed and who has been living since the war on what was once Anna's parents land. As if she has only been waiting for Anna's arrival to give her the pretense to do it, Wanda agrees to take her to the village to try to find the burial site. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a saxophone player in a jazz band who invites them to a show. Anna is disinterested and unmoved by Wanda's argument that her vows will mean more if she first experiences what she would be giving up, yet as the two women uncover more information about what happened to their family, Anna can't help wondering "What if?" What if she had grown up as Ida? What if she became Ida now?

Ida, written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, runs at a brisk 80 minutes but manages to pack a ton of story into that time without ever feeling overburdened by it. Much of the film consists of just Wanda and Anna, who are so different from each other that watching them try to deal with each other is one of the film's greatest entertainments, and watching as they eventually, quietly, form a bond is one of its most moving elements. While Anna is serenity defined, a rule-follower who believes in the basic goodness of people and in the fact that God has a plan, Wanda is a woman with a dry, caustic wit, hardened by her experiences and just so over it all that she steamrolls through every situation. They are total opposites, and though it would be stretching things to say that they balance each other out, the energy created between the two characters (and, by extension, veteran Polish star Kulesza and first time actor Trzebuchowska) is one of the film's greatest assets. The film is primarily a drama (particularly as it approaches its emotionally shattering final act), but there's also a lot of low key comedy in it courtesy of the way that Anna and Wanda interact with and react to each other. From the way that Anna meets Wanda's constant challenging of her belief in God and religion with little more than a calm, self-possessed (maybe slightly pitying) look, to more overtly funny moments such as when Wanda's furious knocks at someone's apartment door go unanswered so she decides to break in and Anna, on realizing what she's doing, tosses off a quick "I'll wait outside" before hotfooting it out of there, the film finds ways to fold humor into its charting of this developing relationship. That relationship is what drives the film and the performances of Kulesza and Trzebuchowska support and build off of each other brilliantly, creating a relationship that, despite the narrative's short running time, becomes complex and nuanced, giving Ida a genuine emotional bedrock.

Filmed in stark black and white and in the Academy ratio so that the image is taller than it is wide, Ida is a visually striking film from its very first frame, and one which feels less like a film set in 1960 than a film that was made in the 1960s. The film's aspect ratio has the effect of making the story feel both deeply personal and specific when Pawlikowski films the actresses in close up, while the use of long shots function to contextualize their story within the grander picture where it's just that: one story within the multitudes of stories. When filmed in long shot, the characters sometimes occupy only one corner of the frame while the rest is empty space, in other shots the characters appear dwarfed by their surroundings, little specs in a large world. The choice is an effective one which allows the film to feel alternately brutally intimate and objective and detached depending on the shot, making this both the specific tale of two women discovering the circumstances of their family's tragedy, and the larger tale of a societal tragedy shared by everyone who was there and by the generations which would follow. Perfectly crafted and executed, Ida is a haunting film that resonates on multiple levels, and it is an absolute masterpiece.

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