by Allan Fish
Ida (Poland 2013 80m) DVD2 (Poland only)
Travels With My Aunt
p Piotr Dzieciol, Eva Puszczynska, Eric Abraham d Pawel Pawlikowski w Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Pawel Pawlikowski ph Ryszard Lenczewski, Lucasz Zal ed Jaroslaw Kaminski m Kristian Eidnes Andersen art Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska, Marcel Slawinski
Ageta Kulesza (Wanda Gruz), Agata Trzebuckowska (Ida Lebenstein), Dawid Ogrolnik (Lis), Jerzy Trela (Szymon), Joanna Kulig (singer), Adam Szyszkowski (Feliks), Halina Skoczynska (mother superior),
The critical and financial failure of Pawel Pawlikowski’s misjudged 2011 film The Woman in the Fifth, coming after seven years after his previous film (the much better received My Summer of Love) could have been enough to have some commentators wondering if he could recover from it. So when Ida was announced for the London Film Festival in the autumn of 2013, I was trying to put his last misfire to the back of my mind. Unable to attend the festival, it was on DVD that I was always likely to see it first. But nothing could really prepare me for what I was about to see.
Ida is really several films in one; not narratively speaking, but thematically. Set in 1962, it follows young Ida, an orphan at a convent who is informed that she must speak to her only living relative before she is able to take her vows. This relative, her Aunt Wanda, is a former state prosecutor well respected inside the party but who has turned more and more to promiscuity and drink. She tells Ida that her parents were actually Jewish and died during the war, murdered before they could even be sent to their deaths at the Nazis’ factories of death. Ida and Wanda agree on a trip to see the primitive house where her family once resided and there come up against a wall of silence from those now living there. They are sent on a wild goose chase, during which time Ida meets a young musician. Finally they learn the truth about Ida’s parents’ death, but how will the two women react to this final act of closure?
The Holocaust will always cast a massive shadow over Poland, and it has been the subject of several important works by everyone from Jakubowska and Ford to Munk and Polanski. Unlike those films, however, this is entirely set years later; there are no flashbacks, for this isn’t about re-enactment but how events shape lives afterwards. In their place Pawlikowski uses visual motifs, most memorably a shot of Ida and her musician friend sat in front of a windowed dividing wall, patterned like a gate and with a mirrored SS motif repeated through the design. Comparisons to Bresson and Tarr are easy to make, but it’s more accurate to imagine it as a Holocaust road movie in the style of Wim Wenders. There are numerous shots that Robby Müller would have been proud of, and the academy ratio monochrome photography adds to a sense of doffing the hat to the past, not just history but of cinema. More striking is the use of framing; Ida and Wanda, indeed many of the characters period, are often framed towards – or even falling off – the bottom of the frame, as if the weight of history’s most calamitous injustice was quite insupportable.
It’s remarkably spare, its narrative starved down to its sinews, and shot in such dark tones in its gloomy interiors as to drive some audiences to depression. Yet each sequence is itself a work of art, with one scene, set deep in a forest, playing out like the most haunting homage to Hamlet you will ever see. Like any road movie, the actors who take the journey must strike the right note, and the two leads don’t strike a false one. Trzebuckowska is hauntingly still, speaking only when necessary, every inch a postulant on the verge, but also a beautiful young woman. Kulesza meanwhile is astonishingly raw, a woman who has not only abandoned God but abandoned hope and who knows from the outset it won’t end well. “What if you go there and discover there is no God?” she tells Ida, in just the right tone of cynicism. Here’s a film that proves that blood is thicker than holy water.