Tuesday, June 3, 2014


             Who Is That in the Mirror?  No One’s Sure
                                 Review by Ken Burke                   Ida

A Polish teenager is about to take nun’s vows in the early 1960s when she learns she’s Jewish, her parents killed in WW II; fascinating, haunting black-and-white foreign film.
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Ida is a film that merits your time and attention although you may have to put it on a video queue because I doubt you’ll find it in many theaters.  However, to speak of it in an intelligent manner (sometimes I can actually do that) I need to fully reveal the plot so be aware of that, although once you’ve seen the trailer (second link below following the review) there aren't many surprises to annoy you.  I honestly think that you can fully enjoy just experiencing what occurs on screen in Ida even if you do know from scene to scene what’s going to happen because the impact of this film comes from the superb acting and the concepts of the situations being depicted, but proceed as you wish with full Spoiler Alerts in mind.

Assuming you’re still with me, let me begin with saying that Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) is one of the most sublime films I’ve seen in a long time, putting us as viewers into situations that most of us would likely never encounter directly but still feeling universal enough to give you plenty to contemplate about the human condition, the conscious choices that we make as our lives unfold, and the difficulties that can slowly or suddenly confront us adding further to the complexity of those choices.  The story is simply that in 1962 Poland, 18-year-old-noviate Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is soon to take her vows at the convent where she has spent all that she can remember of her life in its orphanage.  Soon before the ceremony of pledging a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience (although that’s all Anna’s ever known anyway), however, the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) calls her in to tell her that she has an aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza)—who had previously rejected all invitations to make contact with the girl—so she should meet with her before dedicating her life to the service of the Church.  As we’ll find out later, Anna was brought to the orphanage by an acquaintance of her parents so I’m not sure if the nuns knew anything about her heritage, but even if they didn’t Anna soon finds out after she trudges through the snow to take a bus ride some distance to find her aunt.  Wanda is a hard case who freely drinks, smokes, picks up men in bars, and serves as a court judge in loyal service to her Communist overlords after a previous career as a successful prosecutor of “enemies of the state.”  She’s no red-flag-waving-enthusiast of her regime, though, nor does she have much use for the many Polish Catholics who still exist in her country, given that she’s Jewish, fought the Nazis during WW II, and found little help from those Christians during that terrible time when her fellow Jews were being exterminated.  Thus, her blunt revelation to Anna that her name is actually Ida (and if you were raised with U.S. Southern pronunciations like I was, you should know it’s pronounced Ee-da rather than Eye-da) Lebenstein, she’s the daughter of Wanda’s dead sister, and her aunt has no solid information on the demise of Ida’s parents is delivered with all of the empathy of reading the ingredients on a can of soup, with no intention from Wanda of even discussing any of this further with Ida before the young woman walks quietly back to the bus station to return to her convent.  However, once she’s there she finds that these traumatic revelations have left her unwilling to take the vows that her fellow novitiates are ready to embrace so instead she sets out again to visit Wanda with the determination that she must learn more about her parents before entering into a lifetime of service to the Catholic Church (of course, the church would say that her service is to Jesus Christ—as symbolized at the beginning of the film as the novitiates repaint and replace a statue of the Savior that stands in welcome outside of the convent—but let’s not get into such hair-splitting-conversations now, especially when we haven’t even seen any of Anna/Ida’s hair yet).

When Anna (I’ll alternate that as this narrative recount calls for one or the other) returns to her aunt’s home Wanda is now ready to offer more information to her niece about her family, last seen when Wanda left her sister and brother-in-law with a man she barely knew for their protection as she went off to aid in the resistance to Hitler’s grotesque “cleansing” project.  The women go to the old Lebenstein homestead where the man of the family now living there says the property is his, that his father hid no Jews during the war.  Wanda refuses to believe that so she and Ida (as Wanda would prefer to know her, having no interest in any conception of God nor support for the young woman’s intended commitment to the nunnery) track down the aged father recuperating in a hospital; under the combative verbal assault from this fierce former lawyer the old man finally admits that he killed Ida’s parents in order to claim their property, but it’s also through this harsh questioning that we learn that Ida also had a young brother, likewise dead at the hand of this "protector"—Pawlikowski does a fine job of keeping us engaged in the flow of this narrative by not spelling out too much, too quickly so that we have to learn, and empathize, along with Ida what her unknown past was as she tries to make sense of it with her naïve, cloistered, limited range of experience.  Even what we learn in that hospital room isn’t fully the truth, either, as the resistant-squatter-son admits that he was actually the one who killed Ida’s family and buried them in the woods, a confession he offers in return for them giving up any claims on “his” house and land, along with admitting that Ida was spared because she was so young while her brother was killed because with his darker skin and circumcision he’d easily have been targeted and executed anyway.  Wanda and Anna head off to a family cemetery some distance away, but with a one-night-interruption in jail for Wanda whose drunken driving left their car temporarily stranded off the road (Anna stayed at the local church) with no sympathy from the local police for her supposed-immunity given her governmental status (although apologies were profuse from the local administrator the next morning when her story was confirmed).  Upon returning to the aunt’s city, Anna heads back to the convent once again to try to resume her previously-uncomplicated-life but that’s not going to happen so easily, as if any of this has been easy yet for this seemingly-stunned, barely-beyond-girlhood-young-woman trying to make some sense of a life now far out of balance as she has learned far more than she assumed she would about her mysterious—now understood as horribly traumatic—past.

Still, it’s even worse for Wanda than Anna (now back at the convent, trying to reinsert herself into her Catholic identity) because the older woman is having to process all of the disgust she feels for the various “outsiders,” Polish or otherwise, from Nazis to Christians to Communists who have infiltrated her life (and her country, where the political ideologies are concerned), the “loss” of her only living relative to a theology she has no respect for (she cynically refers to herself and Anna as “slut vs. saint” but also reminds her niece that Jesus hung out with people like her “fallen” aunt; Anna’s church [formerly mine as well] has evolved far from that mindset, though, as we see the novitiates bathing in one scene where they don’t even take their undergarments off while pouring the water over themselves), and the guilt that she must feel for having left her sister with a greedy killer who was willing to exploit the chaos of wartime even as she was part of that war effort, in the failed resistance (I credit my insightful wife, Nina, with this latter observation as I was more focused on the disgust aspect of Wanda’s experiences, but then I have no siblings whereas Nina grew up with 6 of them so she has a better understanding of certain intra-familial matters than I do).  Finally, it’s all over for Wanda as she quietly jumps to her death from her apartment window, leaving the place for Anna to return and bring it to closure following the funeral.  However, before the burial Anna begins to explore what Ida might have been like, wearing her aunt’s high heels and dresses around the dwelling, then attending the funeral as Ida with the nun’s habit left behind; from there, she fully immerses herself in the physical life that she’s never known before as she connects again with a young saxophonist, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), whom she met before when visiting Wanda as he was playing in the drab, somewhat-empty-nightclub on the ground floor of the hotel, where Wanda’s rooms were high above.  Ida (as I think she understood herself at that point) has a brief romance with Lis, experiencing the sexual union that she’s never even fantasized about.  Yet, when he wants to continue with the relationship, even marry her, all she can ask is, “What next?”  He finds this to be an odd question as he assumes it will simply be them having children, growing old together, “You know … life.”  (Or something like that, I didn’t jot down the exact quote quickly enough, any more than I could get the name of the city where Wanda lived because Polish isn’t an easy language for me to hear or pronounce [rest assured, though, this film has subtitles so you don’t have to be bilingual to understand it], just as I assume Poles would be confused by the abundance of homonyms [there/their] and seemingly-contradictory-idioms in English [“Cold as Hell!”]—although I have traveled to Krakow, the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, and Warsaw as well as seen the countryside between them by train so I do have some sense of Poland, its grand history, and a great respect for what its people have endured from outside invasions over the centuries [as well as admiration for their straightforward approach to life:  me to the waiter at a Krakow restaurant, “What’s in this little condiment dish?”; waiter to me, “Pig fat!” [seriously, a Polish snack].)

Whether this prospect was just too different from what she’d known for her previous 18 years, whether it was just too intimidating for her to fully discover what that life would be now that she was more keenly aware of its complexities and contradictions, or whether she was scared that “life” in 1960s Poland would eventually lead her to the same sense of abandonment that had claimed her aunt isn’t clear (nor does it need to be; we easily get the sense of any or all of this stirred together), but whatever her motivation the last thing we see of Anna (I doubt that she’ll ever be Ida again, except as her alter-ego [or maybe in this case it should be “altar-ego,” with English once again allowing for some fascinating, even if unintended, verbal/conceptual ironies] will likely give her some more valid reasons to seek absolution in the confessional over the coming years) is her back in the nun’s habit walking down an empty road toward the camera with a hard-to-read-expression on her face in a very long take, reminiscent of something you might have seen in a French New Wave film from circa 1962.  However, in their willingness to embrace the post-Studio-Era-cinematics of the emerging TV age those Western European filmmakers would likely have been working in widescreen Cinemascope back then whereas Ida conjures up a lost past of German infiltration, the Iron Curtain, and lost identities by not only being shot in an appropriately-drab-black-and-white (like the empty plains and empty lives shown in Nebraska [Alexander Payne, 2013; review in our December 5, 2013 posting], which also contains many of the sparse and rundown environments that we see in Ida, even though Payne’s film is set in present time) but it also uses the classic-boxy-film-ratio of 1.33:1 (just like the photos accompanying this review) so it looks like something that would have come from low-budget, low-tech Eastern-European cinema of half a century ago, although Pawlikowski uses some very contemporary-type compositions within this format, often leaving open or uninteresting right-frame spaces in the images shot by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal which are unbalanced and visually-disturbing but definitely right for their context, thereby being aesthetically justified.  These technical elements make Ida a very different viewing experience, combined with the quietly-disturbing content with its socio-religious base, all of which yields something also akin to the 1960s, the early famous works of Ingmar Bergman (not to discount his actual early work from the 1940s-mid-'50s but I’m referencing his more fully-realized, master-level films from The Seventh Seal [1957] on), although Ida doesn’t attempt to force us into the darkest nights of the soul that this Swedish master is so rightly famous for.

Ida Director Pawel Pawlikowski
In fact, what Pawiikowski (born in Poland but schooled and mostly working in Britain) is exploring with Ida can be best be summed up by the director/coscreenwriter himself as cited in the press materials for his film:  “Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history that wouldn’t feel like a historical film— a film that is moral, but has no lessons to offer. I wanted to tell a story in which ‘everyone has their reasons’ (a line from Jean Renoir's fabulous 1939 Rules of the Game); a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ‘outsider’ with no ax to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood...”  In respect for those (successful in my opinion) intentions, I’ll finish off this review with my usual summative Musical Metaphor, but instead of any of the slightly silly or smarmy choices I sometimes make I’ll just use an introspectively-moody-piece played by Lis in the film (with Ogrodnik actually blowing his own horn [so to speak] as he’s an accomplished musician, not just an actor “sax-synching” to a soundtrack), John Coltrane’s “Naima” (written in 1959, on his 1960 album Giant Steps) in a live Coltrane performance, with him on tenor sax, from 1965 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OuD9VqpgNc (this version’s a bit longer than the original recording; if you’d like to hear that one too here it is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqVT5I3jprU).  With those seductive notes to help you into a contemplative mood about “man [and woman also in this case] and God and law” (to steal a line from Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” [from the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album, but I’m not going to link it here so as to not change the serene mood of Ida and Coltrane with something so much more raucous and blatantly-socially-critical]), I’ll leave you in meditation until my next, soon-to-be-posted-review of much louder material, X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) and Maleficent (Robert Stromberg), the current box-office champions.

If you’d like to know more about Ida here are some recommendations:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXhCaVqB0x0 (with what I reveal in plot details in the above review this 1:56 trailer is all you need to see to get an understanding of the flow of the plot of the film but, if possible, you should see it in full in order to experience the emotional impact it subtly but hauntingly displays as the various situations accumulate)

I couldn’t find any other video material of use about the making of Ida so here are 3 short clips (less than a minute each) from the film to further your sense of what it feels like to watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XKvvuRmHUg (the nuns’ vows ceremony where Anna has refrained, knowing that she’s not ready yet), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKpRkyAGkfk (the first time we see Anna’s hair, previously hidden by her nun’s habit), and http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=S-_4ODxEqck (Anna trying out her Ida identity at a jazz club where Lis is playing)

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  1. I must say single review posts are my favorite; sometimes the double reviews are a little like a Louis CK "bang bang" (two huge meals back-to-back at two different restaurants). By the way if you are not watching "Louie" and "Fargo" on FX you are missing some good television. "Louie" was also dealing with a Polish girlfriend while "Fargo" is produced by the Coen Brothers, channels the classic movie and stars Billy Bob Thorton among other noteables. Start at the beginning of the season for both.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for reading any of them, shorter or longer. I know that with the longer ones sometimes (just sometimes?) I start getting into William Faulkner mode (length, not quality) but with so many fabulous insights to share it's hard to hold any of them back (but brevity is a constant dream so I'll keep working on it). Sorry, but I haven't seen either "Louie" or the TV "Fargo" (I spend too much time trying to write reviews) but I'll see if I can catch up and hope that other readers out there take your advice. Ken

  3. Ida finally made it down to Texas this week. A very interesting film that looks low budget but certainly delivers a good story and acting. I had the definite opinion that the "brother" that was killed during the war was actually Wanda's child. After having the bones dug up in the woods, Wanda carries the small remains while Ida transports the larger remains to the family cemetery. Wanda then commits suicide after another affair; perhaps her sorrow had reached a conclusion. Ida is shown returning to the convent at the end of the film, however one can suppose that her story does not necessary have to complete at the "institution".

  4. Hi rj, I'm glad that you finally got to see Ida because as I look back over what's been released so far this year I find this to be one of the very best. Quite interesting premise that you present about the WW II-era deaths, one that I hadn't considered at all but that has validity. This to me is the mark of what I consider to be the higher level of cinema accomplishment: a film that leaves you with an unfulfilled plot still open to further consideration and interpretation as this one does (yes, you can say that we learned all we really needed to know here but you could say that about Casablanca as well; we know the outcome of the war but what happens to Rick and Louis after they strike out across the desert, what becomes of Ilsa and Victor once they escape the Germans in North Africa? Or, as you note, what becomes of Ida when she returns to the convent?)

    For the standard, effective entertainment movie it's nice to get all of the pieces put in place so we don't have to ponder Godzilla's fate any further (even if he is slated to come back in at least one sequel), but with Ida it's even nicer to realize that with a life as complex as we've already seen of this young woman that there's bound to be a lot more for her to live through and for us to speculate about, even if we never see any of it. Ken