Thursday, February 12, 2015

Oscars 2014: Ida

Agata Kulesza (Wanda) and Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida)
Ida (Poland, 2014) directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, 80 minutes

Two Oscar Nominations
Foreign Language Film

For a much better synopsis and analysis of this film please see David Denby's review in The New Yorker. My husband was so enamored of this film that he saw it twice and dragged our teenager to see it too (who loved it as well).

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate in a Polish convent, is instructed to visit her aunt in Lodz before she takes her orders to be a nun. Anna knows nothing of her family. The aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), is a judge and Communist Party member (although at first glimpse of her louche form in her seedy apartment one has the alarming feeling that she might be a prostitute). Wanda tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is Jewish, not Catholic, and Ida’s mother was Wanda's sister. She asks Ida to accompany her to the village that her parents were hidden in by Christians (then likely betrayed to the Nazis and killed).

The two women are a study in contrasts. Wanda is unnervingly adamant that Ida face whatever awaits them in their old village regardless of what fate might have dealt the family. Ida is curiously nonplussed by this revelation.

Denby talks about the feeling of watching a horror film without the ghouls - it's an apt description as there is always a feeling of impending horror enhanced by the black and white film and the stark Polish landscapes. It's beautiful but with menacing undertones in every scene.

When the couple approaches the Polish family where the Lebenstein family lived in the village, they deny all knowledge of the family who lived there. Wanda is aggressive, and persistent, but the son of the original owner won't budge - he knows nothing and his father is ill and insensible and can tell them nothing. They have no answers for her.

Ida's passivity is disconcerting initially but oddly appropriate here. Trained to obey, she can do nothing but acquiesce to her aunt's sometimes obnoxious behavior and demands. The idea of being Jewish, of having her entire family killed by the Nazis appears beyond Ida's comprehension. Ida seems neither shocked nor displeased nor unhappy. With surprise, I learned through Denby's review that Trzebuchowska is a well known Polish feminist and "hipster". Her angelic face is untouched here, a blank slate, we have no sense of her interior life. Perhaps the horrors are too repellent to contemplate for this young girl.

In the provincial hotel where they stay, a young saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), takes an interest in Ida. We finally see a small sensual flicker of what Ida might have been had she not been deposited at the convent by her family. But that opportunity to experience something different quickly evaporates.

We learn the true fate of the Lebenstein family - it is horrifying and expected and yet somehow we end up feeling compassion for the perpetrators as well as the victims - a testimony to the intelligence of the screenplay and the restrained performance of the actors.

When the film ends we are faced with the realization that little changes whether under the Nazis or the Communists for the Poles. Not much can touch these people psychically damaged by the war and its aftermath. The worst has been done, nothing more can alter that.

P.S. A friend, Michelle B., has advised me (I missed this detail in the film) that Ida was left at the convent by the persons who disposed of the Lebenstein family. Thank you for clarifying that Michelle. 

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