Saturday, December 27, 2014

IDA (2013)

Ida premiered last year in Poland but will most likely be a front-runner for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It hit the art houses highly touted and has the Holocaust factor in its favor, but Pawel Pawlikowski's picture is more about 20th century Poland as a whole than it is specifically about the slaughter of Polish Jews. Deracination in a broader sense is the film's major subject as it addresses not just genocide but the incursions on Polish national consciousness by Communism and western culture. The title character (her name's pronounced "Ee-da," not "Eye-da") is Poland in microcosm. She's a novie nun in the 1960s who's advised to meet her one surviving relative before taking her vows. She meets a disreputable seeming character -- the lady and a gentleman caller are dressing after sex when Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) arrives. After a brusque introduction, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) rushes to work, and it's a surprise to learn that she's a judge. She has a bigger surprise for Ida: the devout Catholic girl is really Jewish, rescued in infancy from her parents' fate and raised in the majority faith. This revelation sets up a road movie as Ida and Wanda roll through the countryside to find where their relatives are buried, For Wanda the trip revives a remembered traumatic past and accelerates her personal decline. For Ida it puts her whole sense of self in question, but making Wanda a model for modern secular womanhood proves unsatisfactory in some vague way.

Wanda confronts Ida with her Jewishness but that isn't Wanda's primary identity, either. Her judgeship represents a career on the skids; a decade earlier she was a state prosecutor, presumably conducting political purge trials, and she's still willing to use her office as a threat to uncooperative people. Ida, however, presumably sees Wanda as not so much Jewish or Communist as modern and secular. The climactic scenes come when Ida resolves literally to walk in Wanda's shoes and consummate an attraction to a progressive jazz musician. Ida's unburdened by Wanda's issues (guilt, alcoholism, etc.), but like Wanda, if less dramatically, she seems to opt out of modern life.

Ida chronicles a futile quest for authenticity. A reactionary reading of it might see her reversion to habit -- clothing, that is -- as a decision in favor of the Church as her true home, but the ambiguity of her Catholic identity is the starting point of the entire picture. If you accept that there's something essentially false about her faith -- so long as she didn't have a choice to embrace first her Jewish heritage and then Christianity -- you face the bleak conclusion that there is no "authentic" Polish identity anymore, or anymore than any nation could claim to have by the mid-20th century. In that context it makes more sense to see more ambiguity in the ending. Dressed in her habit again after her tryst, Ida walks briskly foward as the camera retreats. You might assume you know where she's going because of what she's wearing, but I think it's important that we don't see her destination, that the film leaves her still moving.

Pawlikowski, who has worked primarily in English, evokes the film's period with a rigorous monochrome style many viewers find reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. He works with a pre-widescreen squarish frame in which Ida is often a small figure at the bottom or in a corner. He also employs a kind of retro-modernism in the jazzier scenes amid midcentury decor. In short, the director makes it as obvious as possible that his is an arthouse film, but he and his cinematographers make their pretentiousness often quite impressive. He gets the desired guilelessness from his amateur lead actress, while Agata Kulesza easily dominates the picture whenever Wanda's on screen. Ida is the sort of picture that will be more admired than enjoyed, but in its ambition and execution it does deserve some admiration.

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