Thursday, December 11, 2014
Paweł Pawlikowski | Ida
giving up what one never had
by Douglas Messerli
Paweł Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewic (screenplay), Paweł Pawlikowski (director) Ida / 2013, USA 2014
Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2013 film, Ida, is a movie that seems to come out of nowhere—particularly given the facts of Pawlikowski’s own career, previously consisting of thriller-like British films such as The Last Resort and The Woman on the Fifth (although he was born in Poland, Pawlikowski moved to England as a teen-ager and was educated there) in relation to the issues this new film explores, set in the early 1960s when Poland firmly remained part of the Communist bloc. Similarly, its central characters, a young novitiate raised in a Catholic convent, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and an older judge (the brilliant actor Agata Kulesza), a fervent former state prosecutor known by her supporters (and probably detractors) as “Red Wanda,” not only appear as, what a musician hitchhiker to whom they give a ride, describes as “an unlikely pair,” but seem totally out of place in the world into which the narrative takes them, a small decaying former Jewish community that, after World War II and the death of most of the native Jews, has been taken over by small-minded Christian farmers, men and women who have almost greedily usurped the properties their Jewish neighbors left behind. But it is just these disquieting connections that help to make Pawlikowski’s black and white, nearly square-framed film, so mesmerizing.
The young, simply dressed Anna, in a plain habit, is stunning beautiful, with a memorable dimple centered between her thin lips and and rabbit-wide eyes. Her hair, hidden for most of the film, is, we are told, evocatively red. Although Wanda has clearly seen better days, her body revealing the excesses of sex and alcohol, the middle-aged woman, whom we discover is Anna’s aunt, is still a stunning looker; and her brittle wit, regularly vented between deep inhalations of cigarettes, is something to be reckoned with. Her insistence, when challenged by male authority figures, that “I could destroy you,” is believable, even if she were not to draw upon her high position in the Polish government. She is a powerhouse blending of body and intellect.
The quiet, bible-reading Anna, sent to visit Wanda Gruz by the convent’s Mother Superior*, at first appearance at least, is utterly at a disadvantage to a woman who, a few seconds after they have met, asks what the convent has told them about her and proclaims that the young woman before her, soon to become a nun, was born Jewish! Anna’s real name, she declares, is Ida Lebenstein, and, as if trying a case, she pulls out her saved albums to prove it, documenting the facts through a picture of her sister holding Ida-Anna in her arms. The young girl, indeed, as might be the film’s audience if they had been given the opportunity to respond, is utterly speechless. What could one say in response to such a sudden transformation of reality. To this innocent Christian believer, locked into a basically anti-Semitic society, it would be as if suddenly perceiving oneself not only as an outsider, but as a fiend to world she inhabits. Without a beat, the Wanda leaves her niece alone the very next day to stew over the shocking news as the aunt goes off to officiate in another trial.
Yet by the end of that first day, the timid and frail being has not only assimilated the facts, but is able to ask a question that will change both of them forever: “Where are my parents buried?” Of course that question presumes a reality that could not have existed. Burial presumes a shared institution, a community desire for remembrance and sanctification. Where? Wanda snarls, “in the woods,” in some isolated burial dump. There were not buried but hidden away, the crime of murder covered up.
The stubborn girl, however, is determined to travel to her parent’s home town, to ask questions and discover any possible facts. Even a monster like Wanda, we realize, cannot permit that, and the aunt soon determines to join her in the search, taking the two on what some critics have suggested is a “road trip”—usually an almost aimless journey of self-discovery, but here presented as a voyage not only into the past but into the dark side of the Polish cultural identity.
Pawlikowski, however, never presents his revelations as part of a documentary-like look into the cultural horrors of the holocaust, the way Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah might brilliantly present them. Like almost everything in this film, facts are revealed is obscure asides, hinted at in momentary lapses of cultural etiquette. Little is spoken openly, and, until the very end of this tale, nothing is outwardly admitted. Although, strangely, the truth is apparent from the beginning, the figures this strange pair encounter are like chimeras, figures so fantastical that they lie even to themselves. Certainly no one in the world Wanda and Ida enter knows anything about the “Jews.” Nobody even knows or has known anyone who was Jewish.
Despite her original disavowal of knowledge, however, Wanda obviously knows more than she reveals, visiting the family’s original home to find a hated poacher within, a man whose father once cared for and helped Wanda’s sister and family. Their search for the inhabitants elderly father, however, leads nowhere—in part because of Wanda’s hard-fisted threats. She will break, so she insists, the son who has taken over the family home.
The search for the family remains, however, is only half of Pawlikowski’s story. Perhaps the more important search is for Anna-Ida’s own identity. As she is first presented, she is nobody, an empty slate who herself later admits, has “been nowhere” and, as Wanda insists, has “done nothing.” Suggesting that Ida join her for a jazz concert which features the handsome young saxophonist whom they have bought into town, Wanda rightfully argues that the girl should at least have some experiences with life before, as a nun, she disavows them. And we realize, in turn, that Ida’s problem will not develop from a loss of faith but from a loss of living anything she might regret, a lack of doubt. It is easy, Wanda scoffs, to give up what one never had.
The rest of Pawlikowski’s moving tale alternates between the two women’s search for information about the past—which, in the end, Anna-Ida succeeds in uncovering simply because of the locals’ trust in her as a woman of the cloth. People ask her to bless their children and even, when Wanda is arrested for drunk driving, Ida is given a small but comfortable bed. Ida’s inner turmoil, as she tentatively comes into contact with the world around her, is revealed mostly through her always wide-open eyes, but also through her almost speechless encounter with the saxophonist, who with a gentle kiss becomes her first love.
The two—Jewish aunt and self-identified Christian niece—working together, moreover, eventually do discover the truth, not only finding the bodies but their family’s murderer. And, in this sense, the director suggests that if only the two seemingly opposed elements of the culture might work together, they might resolve and even rectify the horrors of the past.
What we also discover in the unearthing of the bodies, moreover, is that Wanda has also given away something that she never had. Having left behind her own son for her sister to raise, she is now faced with the skeletal remains of his head, memorial to her own guilt. Driving to Lublin, the two women break into the Jewish cemetery where they inter the unearthed remains.
But for truth teller Wanda, the burial is merely symbolic. The blood of her own child remains forever on her hands. And soon after Anna returns to the convent, presumably to be initiated, the seemingly implacable “Red Wanda,” drunk and depressed, calmly, and almost gracefully steps out of her apartment window to crash into the street below.
At just the moment when Anna is beginning to have her doubts about her readiness to enter the order, she is called back to the city to attend her aunt’s funeral. Not so accidently, she re-encounters the young saxophonist (either imaginatively or in the flesh) and readily agrees to have sex. Afterwords, he asks her to accompany him to a gig in has in Gadansk (today symbolic at that time of the future Poland), where she might walk with him along the beach. “And what then?” she asks. We get married, he suggests, have children. “And then?” We live our lives. It is a nice fairytale, she perceives, rising when he falls to sleep, to redress in her simple Catholic habit.
The last scene of the film shows the young woman with whom the film began on another road trip, suitcase in hand. But this time, she moves forward somewhat stridently, with great determination, appearing to have finally made her choice. If nothing else, she now has had something to sacrifice for her religious beliefs.
Los Angeles, June 9, 2014
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (June 2014).
*Coincidentally, I saw Luis Buñuel’s film Viridiana a couple of days before attending Ida. It is worth noting how similarly constructed these films are, particularly, in their early scenes, and in the suicide of the visited relatives, uncle and aunt. In both cases, radical changes occur to the individuals sent out of the convent to a visit to their previously unresponsive family members.