Monday, January 5, 2015

Pawel Pwlikoski's Ida


This film shows up on various reviewers 10 best list for 2014, and for good reason. Both A.O. Scott and David Denby deem it a masterpiece.  Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) prepares to take her vows as a Catholic nun in post-World War II Poland in the convent that has raised her since she was an orphaned child too young to remember. Together with other Novices she adoringly touches up the paint on a statue of Jesus. The girls carry the statue into the Convent's yard like pallbearers, and there erect Jesus on his pedestal in the snow in anticipation of their lifelong service to Him.

But before she is allowed to take her vows, the Mother Superior directs Ida to seek out and meet her lone living relative, Wanda Cruz. "Take as much time as necessary," advises the Mother Superior.  She means look at your past and take time to make sure about the vows.

The film is shot in mono-chrome black and white, which accents the bleak, cold, snowy countryside, the dilapidated convent, the post-war ravaged and neglected streets and cities. The scenes are contemplative, carefully cropped in a way to cause tension.  Headshots are cut off by the frame at the chin--we want to move the camera, we want to see more. We want to read their thoughts, but we can't. We are left to wonder at their faces.

Ida finds her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) in a sixth story walk-up apartment. It is spacious, not poor. Wanda Cruz is a troubled character. She chain smokes, she drinks.  She is brusque, direct, imposing, severely depressed, but not a woman to be trifled with. Yet a man is glimpsed through an open door, getting dressed. He leaves after what has apparently been an unsatisfying casual sexual encounter. "Why did you not come get me?" asks Ida. She means from the convent, when she was young. "I couldn't," says Wanda. "And you wouldn't have liked me; you wouldn't have liked what I do."

Wanda was a communist partisan during the war.  She is Jewish. "You're Jewish," she tells Ida. We wonder what Ida thinks of this news. She is stoic. We can only watch her face.  But what a face.

Of the 3 million Jews in Poland prior to the outbreak of World War II, only 40,000 to 100,000 survived the Holocaust. Wanda survived by joining the communist partisans fighting in the woods. After the war Wanda became a judge in the communist state, taking an active role in the purging of anti-communist elements. By the time Ida shows up, however, all enthusiasm Wanda may once have had for the cause has left her. Communism did not bring renewal. Post war Stalinist bureaucracy and the Holocaust have taken their toll.

Together, Wanda and Ida set off on a road trip to find out what happened to Ida's parents. The story becomes part road buddy movie, part detective story.  They stop at a cross-road and Ida kneels to pray. An intersection of the Jewish past, the Christian and communist present, recent murder in the air.

The women pick up a handsome young hitchhiker, a saxophone player on the way to a gig. It's 1961, there is jazz, John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the air. Ida has a glimpse of what life may have to offer outside the convent: love, walks on the beach, a dog, kids, life. "What comes next?" she asks.

The film is beautiful in its bleakness. It will be a big thing at the Oscars.  It is available on Netflix streaming.


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