A PRAYER FOR THE LIVING
LIKE most films about the Holocaust — or at any rate, the best ones — Ida has no use for explicit horrors. Pawel Pawlikowski’s austere and gravely beautiful film deals in memory and suggestion. Set in Poland in the 1960s, it follows a young woman’s search for the truth about her past and her discovery of a dreadful family secret. It is both exquisitely sad and, in a strange way, exhilarating. Linking the years of Poland’s Nazi occupation with the brutal austerity of postwar communist rule, it encompasses whole worlds of private suffering and national pain. And it does so with an economy of means and an absence of flamboyance found only in great works of art. In our own age of mindless action movies and meretricious spectacle, Ida is a film to restore our faith in cinema — cinema in its purest and most elemental form.
Shot in black and white and no more than 80 minutes long, Ida relies on a kind of visual minimalism: bleak outdoor settings and spartan interiors, endless vistas of grey sky, leafless trees and snowy landscapes. I cannot remember a film whose plain and unadorned surface conceals such a wealth of ideas. The opening scenes are set, appropriately enough, in a convent, where 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate nun, is about to take her vows. Among other things, Pawlikowski makes brilliant use of sound to stress the loneliness and isolation of the women’s surroundings: footsteps resounding on stone surfaces, cutlery clanking in unison as frugal meals are consumed, the distant cries of birds. Ida could be one of the starker products of the French new wave or a return to the classic Polish cinema of an earlier era.
Anna’s story begins with a shattering disclosure. Before taking her vows, she is required to spend time with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her closest living relative. This will be her last contact with life beyond the convent walls. Wanda proves to be a woman of the world — pleasure-loving, boozy, discreetly promiscuous, but with a tender heart. She is struck at once by Anna’s beauty and innocence. As she puts it (not quite truthfully): “I’m a slut and you’re a saint.”
Then, since Anna knows nothing about her origins or her early life, she tells her that her real name is Ida Leibenstein, that she was born a Jew, that her parents were killed during the Nazi occupation when Anna-Ida was a baby. The pair then set off in Wanda’s battered old Soviet-era car to find the graves of Ida’s parents and solve the mystery of her birth. In Hollywood terms, this makes Ida a road movie — though without the usual pop soundtrack during the driving sequences.
Both women are victims of their past, whether known or not. Wanda is a criminal court judge, tormented by memories of her days as a public prosecutor during the Soviet era, when she sent more than one enemy of the people to his death. A lingering sense of guilt makes her more protective of Ida, who has lost not only her parents but the underpinnings of her faith. Even in a secular age, the denial or destruction of religious allegiance can be the cruellest of punishments. Think of poor Shylock, forced to convert to Christianity in The Merchant of Venice; or the wretched Cho-cho-san in Puccini’s opera, her self-abasement so abject she willingly embraces the religion of her faithless lover. Not long ago I reviewed a film called The Infidel, about a British Muslim who discovers he’s a Jew. Unlike Ida, The Infidel was a comedy — though a rather troubling one.
During their journey, Wanda and Ida pick up a hitchhiker (Dawid Ogrodnik), an eager young jazz musician who joins them in their search. And of course he’s attracted to Ida, whose clerical garb, which she insists on wearing, serves only to accentuate her loveliness. Her worldly curiosity whetted by stops at roadside bars and nightclubs, and fascinated by Wanda’s tendency to loose living, Ida is tempted to explore her own sexuality. After all, she hasn’t yet taken her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and I suspect most viewers are hoping she never will ( who doesn’t like a happy romantic ending?). Alone in Wanda’s apartment she lets down her hair, walks about in a pair of Wanda’s high-heel shoes and draws uncomfortably on a cigarette. But she continues to pray and spend time in devotional reading, and nothing can distract her from her primary mission.
With the help of a mysterious witness (Jerzy Trela), she finds her parents’ grave and learns the truth about the deaths. In this cauldron of sorrow and shame, Pawlikowski allows himself the odd touch of humour. If Ida’s parents are to be reburied in the family grave, is it a job for a priest or a rabbi?
The last film I saw of Pawlikowski’s was My Summer of Love, which opened the Sydney Film Festival in 2005. It was a beautifully constructed story of two teenage girls on a journey of selfdiscovery, this one set in England. Ida is an even better film. Its dark, uncompromising tone brings reminders of Francois Truffaut and Andrezej Wanda’s Ashes and Diamonds, of Krzysztof Kieslowski, of Agnieszka Holland (to whom a debt is acknowledged in the closing credits), of the Polish emigre Roman Polanski, whose childhood experiences in wartime Krakow were caught unforgettably in The Pianist. The miracle is that Ida, so plain, so terse, so quiescent by comparison, manages to say so much and leave so much else to linger in the mind: dilemmas of conscience, notions of guilt and betrayal, depths of suffering and anguish.
The black-and-white cinematography has a luminous clarity. This is one of those films it is impossible to imagine in colour. And the performances, without exception, seem flawless. It is only afterwards we realise that Ida has not once smiled and has scarcely spoken a word. We could be back in the world of silent movies. A universe of experience and emotion is conveyed with those fleeting expressions and the light in those gentle, darting eyes.
If Trzebuchowska were a Hollywood actress making her debut, we would be predicting a great future for her. Perhaps she will have that anyway. We must hope so.
Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida, a film that conceals a wealth of ideas behind a plain and unadorned surface