' ' Cinema Romantico: Ida

Monday, June 23, 2014


It’s a thin line between believer and skeptic, which is why it’s easy to wonder if that’s why believers are always so insistently trying to convert skeptics and skeptics are always telling believers what to go do with themselves. Do they recognize the no man’s land between their respective trenches of faith and faithlessness? Are they frightened that one creeping doubt could plunge them into the middle of nowhere where anything and nothing could be true, leaving them to wrestle with unknowns rather than absolutes? I’m asking for a friend. Her name’s Anna (Agata Trzebokowska), and she is the central character of Pawel Pawlikowski impressively contemplative, profoundly placid black & white examination of a sudden time that frightfully tries her soul.

She is an 18 year old orphan, raised in a rural Polish Catholic convent in 1962. Preparing to take vows, her Mother Superior suggests that beforehand she meet her only known living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a high ranking judge who comes to embody the trajectory of communist Poland, her powerful status post-WWII having slowly eroded. We never see her inside a courtroom, only at bars, drinking and carousing, numbing obvious internal pain. And when Anna arrives, perhaps sensing an opportunity to expunge the guilt gnawing at her, she tells her niece the truth – that is, she was born an Ida at the height of WWII to Jewish parents. Their fate seems clear but is still unknown, and so Aunt and Niece strike out to settle it, political and social undertones effortlessly interweaving within the narrative as their journey becomes one into Poland’s murky past, Catholicism and Judaism and Communism colliding.

Ultimately, however, the film turns just as much on Anna’s personal journey. In a way, “Ida”, a distinctly European film, is All-American, in as much as her road trip quietly evolves into a religious rumspringa. She and Wanda pick up a laconic saxophonist, playing at the same hotel where they are staying. The late-night sounds of John Coltrane are an intoxicant, marking not just a subtle shift in Polish cultural attitude but a stirring in Anna’s heart that she struggles to understand. This struggle, however, while charting a predicatable course is never ever simplistic. Yes, the lines drawn appear explicit, the Hard Partying Aunt and a Nun, but those lines quietly blur, the two women so far apart and so close. Wanda seems humored by her niece’s devotion to the Almighty, yet never quite calls her on it. Anna seems discontent with her Aunt’s hedonism, yet willingly lets herself be drawn into it. 

Pawlikowski’s visual scheme, shooting the film in a squared-off 1.37:1 ratio, allows him to fill nearly every frame with substantial headspace, as if evoking God’s eternal presence above, or perhaps evoking His absence where we think He should be. The monochrome only adds to that idea of absence, providing a muted chill that is impossible to shake. Only one shot cast in the moment just after a stoic visit to a graveyard finds the sun shining through, set in the upper left hand of the frame. For a moment it feels like a reminder that things will be all right. But it’s quick dismissal from the picture argues against that assertion instantly.

Most telling, though, is Pawlikowski’s almost utter resistance to camera movement. For nearly the full 80 minutes, every shot is set up and left alone. It underlines the stillness any nun-in-training must aspire to, except, of course, Anna’s plans and ideas become susceptible to significant change as she sees the world beyond the scope of her convent. She wavers, not sensationally but introspectively, between the obvious alternate routes, but in admirable resistance to the usual either/or rhetoric of religious and social ideology, she never quite manages to choose. Instead the film asks us to consider what Anna wants, and what she wants should be good enough for us. But what does she want?

Late in the film, the camera finally moves, and it's jarring. It tracks with Anna as she walks in the late day dusk. We are not sure where she is going. We are not sure she is sure where she is going either.

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