Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: "Ida"

We don't get to see a lot of Polish movies in most of America, so "Ida" is a welcome break from the usual stream of French, Danish and German fare. Director Pawel Pawlikowski ("My Summer of Love"), who also co-wrote it with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, delivers a film of spareness and stillness in which emotions are kept tamped down.

And yet, because the characters strive so hard to keep their fears and passions hidden, that only lends them that much more power.

Shot in elegant black-and-white -- almost every frame is a work of art -- the story is set in 1960, as a now-Communist Poland still struggles to unbury itself from the horrors of World War II. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun about to take her vows.

Orphaned on the doorstep of a priest as a babe, she learns she has one living relative, an aunt who formerly was a judge and state prosecutor during the Stalinist regime, responsible for bringing Nazi collaborators to justice. The head nun insists Anna meet and reconcile with her before she
recedes into strict convent life forever. 

Trzebuchowska is a marvelous subject for the camera, with her leonine face and luminous eyes. She keeps her gaze downcast most of the time, whether out of primness or training, but when she looks up her eyes are probing and brave.

The aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), turns out to be a mass of contradictions. An alcoholic who seems to have one-night stands with a parade of men most every night, she's at once a loner who seems desperate for company. She treats her newfound niece with disdain, responding candidly that she did not respond to all the letters from the orphanage because she simply didn't want to.

But she has a secret to tell: Anna's parents were Jews who were murdered, not by the Nazis but one of their fellow Poles. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein. Most everything Anna/Ida has thought about herself turns out to be untrue.

The two go on a quest to find out the truth about their family. They travel to their hometown and begin questioning locals and neighbors. Along the way they pick up a handsome saxaphone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), and Anna feels stirrings of her unexplored womanhood. Wanda openly encourages her to sleep with him, arguing that the vows she's about to take won't mean anything if she doesn't know what she'll be giving up.

More secrets are revealed that turn this sad story into one of soul-tearing tragedy. We learn more about Wanda and her own journey to a crossroads without turnings.

Some viewers may find "Ida" a little slow, but this is a beautiful story, beautifully told. These are tears you'll want to shed.

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