Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 28, 2014 2:46 pm 
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Truths about Polish Jews seen through a novice nun

The Polish Director Pawel Pawlikowski, who moved to England to study at Oxford and later started in documentaries, acquired a reputation and won prizes for three feature films in English spaced well apart, Last Resort (2000), about asylum seekers in Britain; the dreamy, steamy My Summer of Love (2004), which launched Emily Blunt's career; and the less well received but richly atmospheric French-English drama with Ethan Hawke and Kristen Scott Thomas, The Woman in the Fifth (2011). With Ida Pawlikowski for the first time has gone back to Poland and made a movie set in the early 1960's, when the War's horrors are still vivid, and it's a zinger.

Ida concerns an 18-year-old orphan called Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) raised in a convent who's about to become a nun. Before she takes this step, the mother superior suggests she should go to meet her only surviving relative, her aunt Wanda (TV vet Agata Kulesza). This leads to shocking news and a joint journey by the two women. The harsh, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Agatha immediately confronts Anna with the fact that her real name is Ida and she is Jewish. Her parents were killed in the War. Ida and Wanda go to the village where she was born to find out how exactly her parents died and what happened to their remains. Pawlikowski has created a beautiful and sure-footed work that's simple, understated, and elegant. Except for some dubious surprise changes at the end, Ida is a pleasure to watch, notable for its acting, its visual style, and its neat and evocative use of music.

The two actresses are strong in their individuality and their contrast. The naive, inexperienced Ida and jaded, alcoholic Agatha make an odd pair, but on their trip back to the village they bond in the powerful emotion of digging up trauma and loss Ida never knew of -- she was taken in as a baby by the sisters -- and Agatha has long put off confronting. On the drive, Agatha picks up a hitchhiker, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a good looker with a wispy mustache, like Josh Hartnett. He turns out to be a jazz saxophone player on the way to a gig. His performance of John Coltraine's Naima transports, perhaps transforms, Ida, while Lis begins to fall in love with her. Agatha, who keeps drinking and smoking heavily, meanwhile is on a downward path. She is a decayed remnant of the postwar period. Once a high-ranking and notorious judge active in communist purges, her alcoholism and bad behavior have now reduced her to a low-level magistrate who hears only trivia cases. She's become bitter and desperate, but still seems afraid of nothing. Perhaps it's desperation that makes her more than willing to confront the secretive, hostile villagers.

Agatha's investigation, during which Ida, in her novice nun's cowl, is assumed to be a Christian, unearths much the same hidden secrets as the highly controversial Polish film Aftermath. which aroused outrage in Poland by showing that Poles carried out widespread slaughter of the Jews on their own during the War and have continued to deny guilt for doing so, blaming it all on the Nazis and denying that the Jews they slaughtered once owned the farmland they now lay claim to. Ida draws on these same facts, but reveals them quietly. The film's dark secrets seem even more revelatory and shocking without Aftermath's heavy-handed violence and provocation.

Pawlikowski chooses to shoot the film in black and white, but the effect achieved by dp's Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski isn't grim or austere, or self-consciously arty, but direct, yet also subtle, with a great sense of period. Figures are often to one side or near the bottom of the framing, giving the usually claustrophobic Academy ratio a more spacious feel than usual, and the soft grays are more delicate than grim. The simplicity and sureness of the film are exemplified in Pawlikowski's sparing but effective use of music. Agatha keeps listening to a record of Mozart's 41st "Jupiter" Symphony. It seems an anodyne for her, a search for peace, an escape into a more civilized world. The other theme is Coltrane's Naima. It also expresses peace and beauty, but it's new and exciting, quietly thrilling music, a revelation, as indeed it was in the early 1960's. Even the musicians Lis plays with probably have just learned it. The two pieces are haunting long after one has seen the movie, but like everything they're introduced with a light, sure touch.

When Agatha disappears from the picture, Ida goes through a dramatic series of changes, uncertain whether to be inducted as a nun or not. Here the action goes a bit far, and its strangeness makes us realize we learn more about and understand Agatha better than Ida all along. The symbolic emphasis on the transformative effect of knowledge has a metaphorical human validity, but it undermines the feel of authenticity that has prevailed up to there. Otherwise, however, Pawlikowski has made almost a pitch-perfect film this time, showing his gifts shine as much if not more in his native tongue and shooting in the land where he was born.

Ida, 80 mins., debuted at Telluride, then Toronto, Gdynia and London in Sept. and Oct. 2013 and played in over 18 international festivals in 2013 and 2014, winning the FIPRESCI at Toronto and Best Film at London, sweeping the awards at Warsaw. It opened theatrically 12 February 2014 in France to rave reviews (Allociné press rating 4.3). It opens in the US 2 May 2014 at Film Forum.

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