Film of the Week: Ida
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a remarkably beautiful film—which, for some, may cause alarm bells to ring. I should add that it’s a remarkably beautiful film set in the early Sixities, in black and white and in Academy ratio—and those bells may ring louder. This stately drama from Poland will indeed polarize viewers: when it screened in Toronto, Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as “a connoisseur’s delight” with overtones of Dreyer, while Variety’s Peter Debruge was less impressed: “Devoid of color and mirth alike . . . just the sort of joyless art film one might expect Polish nuns living under the clutches of 1960s communism to appreciate.” That’s not fair: actually, Ida might appeal to nuns anywhere, as long as they have historical perspective, an eye for period atmosphere, and a taste for stark moral irony. Ida is in no way lacking in pleasures, although they’re on the dryer (rather than the Dreyer) side: they’re to be found in the tartness of the drama and in the elegance of the style. And I’d certainly never consider a moody late-night rendition of John Coltrane’s “Naima” joyless.
Ida is about a novice nun in Poland facing up to questions of faith and identity—and director Pawlikowski, who co-wrote with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is doing something similar. For this is the film in which he rediscovers his Polishness. Born in Poland, Pawlikowski left the country in the early Seventies and went on to establish himself as a British filmmaker, first as an imaginative and caustic documentarist (notably with Serbian Epics, which revealed the bardic pretensions of Radovan Karadzic), then in a series of low-budget dramas that stretched the British realist tradition in idiosyncratic directions. Last Resort (00) depicted the world of asylum seekers as a bitterly inhospitable micro-climate within Britain, while the teenage female folie à deux of My Summer of Love (04) mixed eroticism, pastoral lyricism, and the English class structure into something delicately unsettling. Pawlikowski only came unstuck with The Woman in the Fifth (11), an awkward essay in Parisian paranoia.
It’s hard to tell from all this exactly who Pawlikowski is as a director, although among his features, Last Resort offers the most cogent picture of someone turning a documentarist’s sensibility to the creation of disillusioned fictions. Ida doesn’t look like any of his other films, and it’s a fascinating self-reinvention—and the film in which Pawlikowski invests most systematically in visual style.
The film begins in a convent, where young nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is first seen putting a restorative touch to a statue of Jesus, which she and her fellow novices then place on a plinth in the snow, standing around to adore it (these are the sort of nuns Debruge is thinking of, who certainly could use an art movie by way of distraction). This is indeed the most severe-looking convent imaginable: the novices’ hoods are a field of grey, and in one shot the building’s façade looks like a trompe l’oeil oil-painting in grey, slightly blurred, like a Gerhard Richter copy of a photograph. The place even has an austere sound: in the refectory, the spoons emit a bone-dry clatter.
Then Anna is summoned by her mother superior (what do mothers superior ever do in nun movies but summon novices?) and told that, before she takes the veil, she should visit one Wanda Gruz, the aunt who has never seen fit to make contact. Anna gets on a bus, and suddenly the film is infused with city bustle. She goes to Wanda’s apartment, where a louche-looking middle-aged woman (Agata Kulesza) greets her in a dressing gown, cigarette in hand (a gentleman caller is dressing in the background), and gives her an altogether chilly reception. We may be forming our own ideas about what kind of racy bohemian Aunt Wanda is—but we soon learn that she’s a forbidding pillar of Communist Poland. In her daily work, she’s a judge, presiding sternly over such cases as the trial of a discontent who hacked down some official ornamental flowers with a sword. In fact, Wanda bitterly prides herself on being a heavyweight: as she tells Anna, she was a hard-line state prosecutor in the early Fifties: “I even sent people to their death—Enemies of the People. Red Wanda, that’s me.”
Little wonder that she has turned to the bottle and an aimlessly hedonistic off-duty life. But Wanda’s conscience—and, it turns out, tragic backstory—impel her to take Anna under her wing and help her discover their shared past. For Anna, Wanda reveals, was born Ida Lebenstein and is actually Jewish (a nun who learns she’s Jewish—now there’s a Sarah Silverman vehicle we’d all like to see). But think about why a Jewish girl, in her late teens in the early Sixties, might have been placed in an orphanage in Poland as a baby, and you begin to see the somber themes that Ida is dealing with. The film becomes a road movie of sorts when Wanda and Anna/Ida head out to confront these themes, and after the austerity of the opening convent sequence, things loosen up considerably.
Ida starts to inhabit two worlds at this point. On one side, there’s the bleakness of rural Poland: a world of grey muddy farmyards, overcast roads (the monochrome vistas of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska are the Côte d’Azur by comparison) and at one point a forest of trees so densely, darkly crushed together that the screen resembles a woodcut. On the other side, there is the indoors world of entertainment and sparse luxury that Wanda retreats to, and where Ida finds some sustenance too. It’s in hotel lounges and jazz cellars that Ida hits a vein of melancholy cool—in low-vaulted bars where a torch singer (Joanna Kulig from Elles and The Woman in the Fifth) silkily croons, and where a dashing alto saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik, bringing a dash of Fifties Polish icon Zbigniew Cybulski) touches on a secular nerve in Anna.
There’s a consistent thread in film fictions about novice nuns who venture out beyond convent walls—always an erotic frisson, however subliminal. It’s the promise of symbolic deflowerment, in that we always want to see the virginal heroine remove the veil and enter into an intimate relationship with the world—whether it’s Julie Andrews, off to climb every mountain, or the heroine of Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, dabbling with Islamic fundamentalism. Anna’s blank, demure surface is exploited as a consistent tease—in contrast to Wanda’s soured, worldly blowsiness—and sure enough, there comes a moment when she cautiously removes her scarf and examines her hair in the mirror. In the context of a story about a virginal, silent novice, this is practically the equivalent of Natalie Wood’s Louise in Gypsy first stepping out to sing “Let Me Entertain You.”
But if there’s a striptease in Ida, it’s really the uncovering of layers of Poland’s past. Wanda, the woman who knows—and forces others to reveal what they know—is an experienced interrogator, a peerless detector of lies and prevarications. (She’s funny too: she asks a woman, “Do you know the Lebensteins?” “Jews?” the woman says. “No, Eskimos,” Wanda retorts.) Her questioning lays bare the guilty secrets of wartime Poland, although they are secrets that she knows already—while her own uneasy conscience stems from the cause she once adopted, and what she sacrificed for it. Worn out, disillusioned, bitter about the injustices she executed as an idealistic but draconian judge, she has a last crack at redemption trying to help the young innocent that she can’t help admiring, despite her skepticism and anger (“I’m a slut and you’re a little saint,” she says to Anna. “This Jesus of yours adored people like me”).
So we shouldn’t be over-impressed by the seemingly pious austerity of the opening convent sequence, or of all those shots in which grey walls and Anna’s face alike seem to soak up light (Pawlikowski seems to have sought out every mildewed wall in Poland). Ida is a much more worldly and hard-edged film than it initially seems. What’s more, at a concise 80 minutes, it doesn’t linger more than necessary on any shot, Jaroslaw Kaminski’s editing bringing the drama a bracingly crisp edge.
Hardness also emerges in the tension between the two women—Wanda distancing herself with sour irony, Anna sometimes retreating into defiant mutism. The story is as much Wanda’s as Anna’s, and the older woman’s soured elegance, her scowling disapproval of a world that she’s seen right through, emerge in Agata Kulesza’s superb performance, authoritative and quietly distressing. As Anna, Trzebuchowska is more of a mystery, as befits the character. Sometimes we don’t know if there’s a person there (yet), as we see only a face framed by a headdress, a face wide, placid, and lunar that appears to reveal nothing—a blank slate that seems as if it’s about to be written over by life’s troubles.
The film is shot primarily by camera operator Lukasz Zal, making his feature debut; he took over shortly into the shooting from the director’s usual DP Ryszard Lenczewski, who stepped out partly because of illness. And it’s meticulously designed by Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski; the lounges and bars echo the mood of the underground spaces of Wajda’s Fifties films (a friend also detected a flavor of early-Sixties Forman), but more than anything I was reminded of the melancholy retro of Aki Kaurismäki’s Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, while a wide shot of a car in a glum garage yard made me think of early Jarmusch. In any case, Ida’s cultivatedly stark beauty is neither merely decorative nor a shortcut to transcendental exaltation (as its opening shots might suggest). It’s a sharper, grittier film than the premise might make you think. Ida still doesn’t give us a clearer idea of who Pawel Pawlikowski is—but it’s good to see him on his best form in some time, whether or not he decides to continue as the reborn Polish director who’s made this compelling quasi-debut.