A PRAYER FOR THE LIV­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEW -

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

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