Friday, July 27, 2018

The Sounds of Silence: Poland’s Mesmerizing “Ida”

Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 Ida, is not a good film. Which is to say, it’s a GREAT film, the most breathtaking cinematic work of art I’ve seen in a very long time. No wonder that, even in competition with Russia’s Leviathan and Argentina’s delightfully twisted Wild Tales, this import from Poland was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Ida, set in 1962, reflects what happened to the Jews of Poland during and after the second World War. Its title character is a devout convent-bred novice, on the brink of taking her final vows, who unexpectedly discovers that her dead parents were Jewish. Though Holocaust dramas are sometimes rather cynically seen as awards magnets, it’s narrow-minded to look at Ida solely through its depiction of the murderous treatment of Polish Jews under the Nazi regime. Pawlikowski, a native-born Pole who has long lived and worked in Britain, has even more complicated matters on his mind. In contrasting naïve young Anna with the bitter Jewish aunt she didn’t know she had, he explores the wavering line between religion and politics, innocence and guilt, life and death. Aunt Wanda, the loving sister of Anna’s dead mother, somehow survived the Holocaust, but it’s taken its toll on her outlook. A judge, Wanda spent the early post-war years as a dedicated Communist, one who committed herself to rooting out deviance from the party line. Now, however, she’s no longer certain about the cause she’s championed for so long. The twists and turns of her family story have left her cynical, even angry. That’s why she drinks, chain-smokes, and seeks out casual sexual partners . . .  but the film unearths a secret that explains even further why the past has such a hold on her.

Against all odds, Wanda and Anna forge a relationship based on their common bonds. It’s one that takes the film in an unexpected direction, one that I won’t betray. Suffice it to say, though, that Anna (née Ida) turns out to be more surprising than we might have predicted. She may have been raised to know nothing more than convent life, but her brush with the outside world makes its mark. Not—I hasten to add—that she exactly chooses a modern path. We’re left, finally, with more questions than answers.

In the service of his characters, Pawlikowski has chosen filmmaking techniques that are highly unusual. The film is shot in stark black and white, using an old-fashioned aspect ratio that often reduces characters to a small speck in the bottom corner of the screen. Moreover, from scene to scene his camera shows virtually no movement. So what we’re seeing, as we cross rural Poland,  is fixed pictures, in which the characters are merely blips inside their all-encompassing environment. Many years ago, Roger Corman instructed me to read Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film. It’s a long, rather ponderous book, but it makes the point that the magic of cinema is all in its visuals. This film illustrates Kracauer’s belief system in a way that’s not ponderous at all, but rather powerfully dramatic.

Not only is Ida visually static, but it’s at times almost silent. Dialogue is next to nil: by contrast, it’s fair to say that most Hollywood films -- dependent as they are on bright verbal exchanges -- seem downright obstreperous. Often, watching this film, we know what’s happening through what is not said. It’s a method that draws the viewer into the film, making us pay close attention to nuance, to facial expression, to glimpses that we may or may not have seen. Bravissimo.  

Here's a link to a very smart New York Times review of Ida

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