Spare to a fault, the new Polish drama Ida leaves so much open to interpretation that it becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, the things you see in it are likely to reflect what you knew about the Holocaust — or thought you knew — before you ever entered the theatre.
Shout-Out to My Mishpokhe: Some films may well be about The Holocaust, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “good for the Jews.” (JLH: 3/5)
Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner
Lodz 1962: “Anna” (Agata Trzebuchowska), a teenage novice in a Polish Convent, is about to take her vows when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) insists that she visit her “Aunt Wanda” (Agata Kulesza), someone whose existence had been hidden from her until that moment. As soon as they do meet, Wanda immediately informs Anna that her real name is Ida and–surprise, surprise–she was born Jewish.
Leaving the theatre, my husband Richard and I agreed that the austere back & white photography (by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) was exquisite, and Agata Trzebuchowska (making her screen debut) had a face made for the camera.
But after that our discussion became quite heated, and we started to wonder if we had actually seen the same film…?
The film I saw was spare to a fault, with way too much left open to interpretation. The Mother Superior, for example, periodically gives Anna/Ida long, stern looks that seem fraught with significance, but she barely has a single line of dialogue beyond telling Anna/Ida–in the film’s opening act–that she must visit her Aunt before taking her vows.
It turns out that Aunt Wanda is a fairly important person; some might even call her “notorious.” Therefore, since the Mother Superior has always known who Anna/Ida’s Aunt Wanda is, she has known for a very long time that Anna/Ida was born Jewish. But beyond that, we have no clue to what the Mother Superior is thinking.
Why does the Mother Superior insist that Anna/Ida must meet Aunt Wanda before she takes her vows? Maybe she wants Anna/Ida to know who she “really is” before she allows this very young woman to make such a serious commitment? Or maybe she thinks that “Jewish Blood” might eventually pollute her otherwise pristine convent? Who knows? The screenplay tells us nothing beyond the fact that she is obviously watching Anna/Ida’s behavior–both before and after her visit to Wanda–with an extra measure of critical attention.
The lack of narrative detail is especially disappointing because the screenplay was co-written by director Pawel Pawlikowski (who–to date–has been a marginally successful filmmaker) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who is already a very successful British playwright).
Even though it is only 80 minutes long, Ida feels much longer. In fact, with its long, wordless, static–albeit beautifully composed–shots, it often felt interminable to me. The first time I saw it (at a critics screening at the Film Forum on 4/25/14), I was desperate to flee the theatre as soon as the credits began to roll, although I forced myself to stay seated until the bitter end just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. And then I went back to the Film Forum with my husband Richard (on 5/3/14) to see it a second time start to finish, resulting in even more frustration.
I don’t know this for a fact, but my gut tells me that Lenkiewicz’s dramatic skills were tightly constrained by Pawlikowski’s visual aesthetic. The result is a film that is so obsessed with fetishizing the face of a beautiful young woman that it ultimately loses its way in the forest (and yes, I do mean that literally as well as metaphorically).
© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (5/6/14)
Top Photo: “Wanda” (Agata Kulesza) and “Ida” (Agata Trzebuchowska) are in Wanda’s apartment. Since Ida has had no knowledge of her parents, she is seeing photos of them for the very first time.
Bottom Photo: Wanda faces off against a steely police officer who has no idea who she is. Why does he arrest her? Does he really think she was driving drunk and needs to be incarcerated for her own protection so she can “sleep it off”…? Or does he arrest her to teach “the Jew” a lesson–to bully her and intimidate her and force her to stop asking questions about the fate of Ida’s parents…?
The screenplay gives us no answers. We are left to draw our own conclusions. But suffice it to say Wanda wins. As soon as they learn who she is, Wanda is released and the police officer–bowing and scraping–obsequiously begs her forgiveness.
Now that she has decided to look for her family’s remains, after shirking the burden for some 20 years, Wanda will not be stopped… And that is how Ida winds up–inevitably–in the heart of that dark Polish forest…
Photo Credits: Sylwester Kazmierczak and Liliana Milewska
May 24th Addendum: My fundamental problem with Ida is that the screenplay is so deliberately spare that the film becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, I think the less you know about the Holocaust, the more likely you will be to misinterpret what little bits of information are actually provided in the film. In other words, while everyone is certainly free to see whatever they see in it (of course), the things you see in it are likely to reflect what you knew — or thought you knew — before you entered the theatre.
One Example: I participated in a contentious thread on IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) in which a woman I assume to be Catholic was arguing that “Ida believes in Jesus and wants to be a nun.” For this woman, if Anna/Ida wants to be Catholic and she doesn’t want to be Jewish, then that’s the end to it. If she has absolutely no interest in Judaism — never bothering to ask Aunt Wanda or anyone else about what it might mean to be Jewish — then that’s fine. Anna/Ida doesn’t think she’s Jewish, so she’s not Jewish. Full stop.
My Response: For most Jews, many Poles, and all Nazis, Judaism is more than a statement of religious belief. Anna/Ida was a baby when the Priest brought her to the convent. So while the lady on IMDb clearly thinks Anna has chosen to be “a practicing Roman Catholic,” some might say that was simply the way Ida was raised.
“She believes in Jesus so she wants to be a nun,” repeats the lady on IMDb. But do we really know this? Perhaps in her brief time away from the convent, Anna/Ida has learned that the world is a rather frightening place. So maybe she has decided to return to the convent because the convent is, after all, the only “home” and the only “family” this very young woman has ever known…
Some will say Pawlikowski leaves these questions to the audience, but I think that’s a cop out. Me, I don’t think Pawlikowski has given sufficient thought to “the Jewish Question.” I think he’s really interested in creating beautiful images of Poland before the thaw, but he has adroitly used the Holocaust to add “gravitas” to an otherwise thin aesthetic exercise.
A Cynical Question: Would Ida have all this buzz now if it had just been about a beautiful teenage nun who has a brief affair with a handsome jazz musician before taking her final vows?
Before you answer that question, I think you should take another look at exactly what Ricky Gervais had Kate Winslet say in the infamous episode of Extras which appeared just before Winslet did, in fact, win an Oscar for her role in The Reader.
Ranting about Ida now reminds me of my earlier rants about The Pianist and The Reader. To be blunt, some films may well be about The Holocaust, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “good for the Jews.”