(The Polish film “Ida” opened in North American cinemas on 2 May 2014 and opens here in Australia on 22 May 2014.)
Ida, the latest film from Polish-born, Paris-based director Pawel Pawlikowski presents an unremittingly bleak and austere portrait of Poland in the early 1960s, in the shadow of World War II.
The story is simple. Young Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) has been living in a convent for many years and is about to take her vows as a nun, when the Mother Superior comes with some unusual news: her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her late mother’s sister who is a lawyer and former public prosecutor for the Polish communist government, has made contact to meet her. Anna is to spend some time with Wanda before the finalisation of her vows.
When Anna arrives at Wanda’s flat, she discovers a chain-smoking, hard-drinking and depressed woman along with a family secret that shakes her sense of self: Anna is Jewish, and her parents and the rest of her family all killed in the Holocaust. Anna’s birth name was, in fact, Ida. She and Wanda then set off together to the village where her family had lived in order to determine the real facts of her parents’ deaths.
Along the way, Anna/Ida meets a young musician who falls in love with her, and Wanda continues her boozing and dissolute lifestyle, haunted by her own life decisions.
Critics love this film (it currently has an outstanding 98% “positive” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes film critic website), and has won numerous awards. It’s not hard to see why. It is beautifully shot in black in white, evoking a bare, emotionally – and physically – cold and dreary Poland that surely is as close to capturing the spirit of that time as any recent film has. The performances are subtle and powerful, particularly that of Trzebuchowska in the title role. She has few actual words to say, but is on-screen for a large part of the film, relying on an inner stillness and contained watchfulness to show her character’s emotions. In an age when film-makers think nothing of creating films of many hours’ duration, “Ida” is short and to the point: 80 minutes long.
There is also a fascinating cinematographic style, with the subjects in some scenes positioned at the bottom of the screen. I am not quite certain what director Pawlikowski is trying to say, but this film will give some years of film students something to talk about in class.
However, from a Jewish standpoint, I find “Ida” profoundly depressing and problematic. All of the film’s implicit conclusions about Jewish life in its aftermath of the Holocaust are negative. Yes, the film illustrates the tragedy that Ida never knew her parents (she was virtually a baby when given over to the convent). Similarly, the Polish family that at first shielded her family – and most Poles in general (excepting the nuns and a handful of others) – are not presented in a positive way. But – IMPLIED SPOILER HERE (please do not keep reading if you do not want to know more about the plot) – the life decisions of the two key characters (Ida and aunt Wanda) indicate that the Holocaust has so damaged both of their lives that their only options are to turn away from being Jewish, each irrevocably in their own way.
The fact is: THIS MAY BE A TRUE INDICATION of what could happen, and consistent with these characters and this story. But as they are the only two Jewish characters who appear on screen, we are left with a blankness and a nothingness that has no-where to go. This may have been the director’s intention. It is true that some 90% of Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis (about 3 million of 3.3 million living there at the start of the war), more than any other country (see the Jewish Virtual Library and Yad VaShem), so my argument is not with the facts of the destruction of Polish Jewry, but with the narrative conclusions. Were Wanda’s and Ida’s two choices the only ones? I think not.
“Ida” is in Polish with English subtitles.
(Note: The official website of “Ida”, complete with press notes, photos and posters, can be viewed here.)