Ida

May 24, 2014
Agata Trzebuchowska in 'Ida' (2013)
Agata Trzebuchowska in 'Ida' (2013)

Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland in 1971 at the age of 14, and settled with his family in England. In a peripatetic career as a filmmaker he completed a series of offbeat documentaries before making an acclaimed “quintessentially English” drama, My Summer of Love, in 2004. With Ida not only has he returned to his Polish roots, he has given us the kind of film that might have been made in the 1960s, when he was still living in Warsaw.

It was the era of the Polish New Wave, when directors such as Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski and Krzysztof Zanussi were producing shorts and first features. Those films, shot in grainy black-and-white, have a starkness, an oblique sense of irony peculiar to life behind the iron curtain. Pawilikowski has created a remarkable facsimile in this tale of a young noviate on the verge of taking her vows, who visits her one remaining relative and accompanies her on a trip back to her roots. It’s a journey of self-discovery for both Ida and her aunt, as the door to the past is prised open.

When we meet the protagonist (Agata Trzebuchowska) her name is Anna. She leaves the convent with the greatest reluctance after the Mother Superior insists she go see her aunt before renouncing the world altogether. Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is a provincial magistrate in her forties, who drinks and engages in casual affairs. She is at first non-plussed to see Anna arrive in her nun’s habit, but decides they must go back to the village where her niece was born, and her family perished.

The first revelation is that Anna’s real name is Ida, and she is Jewish. The second is that her parents were murdered during the war, not by the Nazis, but by the neighbours. Wanda, who was once a force in the Communist Party, draws the truth out of the locals with grim determination, but there is no melodrama involved. We experience everything in this film with an amazing sense of distance. It is partly to do with a cinematographic style that makes the characters seem small in the frame, but also because these women are closed books to each other and perhaps to themselves. Ida says little, while Wanda reminisces.

They pick up a young hitchhiker named Lis, (Dawid Ogrodnik), who plays the saxophone in a band, and decide to stay overnight in the hotel where he is performing. Wanda hits the bar while Ida becomes fascinated by the music, and listens to Lis talk about John Coltrane. Nevertheless, she returns that night to her cell-like room, and her prayers.

Throughout the film we feel Ida’s struggle to remain focussed on her faith despite all worldly temptations. For Wanda, the world has become a bleak and cheerless place since her days as a Party apparatchik. She drinks and fornicates to distract herself from her own thoughts. It would be a luxury for her to consider renouncing the world, because the world renounced her long ago.

The relationship between the two women is an ambiguous one. They are opposites, but yoked by blood and by the secrets of the past. Ida’s silence gives the impression of disapproval, but Wanda seems equally contemptuous of her niece’s religious convictions. They contrive to get on with one another and are drawn closer together. We only begin to understand this closeness as the film draws towards a conclusion.

The big themes of this movie are the big themes of modern Polish history: the Second World War, the treatment of the Jews, Catholicism and Communism. We are always conscious of these spectres, but Pawelikowski never allows them to become intrusive. The narrative is focused on Ida and Wanda; the visuals on the drab, sad, impoverished environment of Communist Poland. This is the world that Ida must choose to embrace or reject. But when the entire nation is cloistered away, it’s hard to say whether the nun’s cell represents an even greater confinement or a sanctuary.

Ida
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski & Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Joanna Kulig
Poland/Denmark, rated M, 80 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 24 May, 2014.