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Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Ida" 2013 Review. Beautiful but Underdeveloped


"Ida" 2013 directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is a brief (80 minutes) black-and-white, two-character movie. It is very quiet; you barely need to read the subtitles to follow the slender plot. It is so slow-moving that three times while watching it I suspected that technical difficulties had stopped the film. No; the actor and scene were merely all but frozen. This almost anorexic film takes on huge, sweeping issues: Polish-Jewish relations, Christian-Jewish relations, identity, the Holocaust, guilt, karma, Communist oppression of Poles, and the Catholic vow of chastity for nuns. Reviewers have blessed "Ida" with glowing reviews, insisting that this minimalist film makes big points through allusion and suggestion.

I doubt this. I think most viewers who don't know a heck of a lot about Poland will be baffled and bored by this movie. I think sometimes less is not more but really is less. I think "Ida" would have been a better film with a more tightly focused and more developed screenplay. Words can lead to misunderstanding but words are what we've got to work with. "Too many notes!" a cinematic emperor criticized a Mozart work. "Ida" suffers from "too few words."

In spite of its heavy subject matter, what struck me most about "Ida," and what I will most remember, is its visual beauty. "Ida" is shot in black and white, and it takes place in undistinguished Polish settings in the depth of winter. You see snow-covered fields, corner bars, dingy buildings with cracked plaster. The careful composition of each shot, and the cinematographers' lovely handling of different gradations of light and shadow, transform otherwise dreary locales into works of art.

"Ida" is about a teenage girl in Poland in the 1960s. She has spent her entire life in convent, and she is about to take her final vows. Her mother superior orders her to meet, for the first time, with Wanda Gruz, her sole living relative. Ida does so, and Wanda informs Ida that she is Jewish. Wanda and Ida travel to the village where their Jewish family hid from the Nazis in a barn. Ida's parents and brother were murdered. Wanda and Ida travel to their grave. This new information causes Ida to reassess her commitment to becoming a nun.

Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. Press accounts claim she is not a professional actress. She is given very little to say or do. The camera spends much time gazing at her youth and beauty. A male director ogling a gorgeous young amateur – the director's "discovery" – whom he does not allow to speak, act or develop as something other than an artistic composition – distracted and offended me. Enough already with females as marionettes of male geniuses.

Agata Kulesza plays Wanda Gruz, Ida's aunt. Wanda was a judge under Communism. Wanda participated in the persecution of Polish anti-Nazi fighters in the post-war era. Wanda is based on the real life Helena Wolińska-Brus. Wolinska-Brus participated in the Stalinist persecution of genuine heroes who had fought the Nazis and aided Jews. She was a monster.

The Wanda Gruz of "Ida" is not a monster. She is the most fascinating and memorable character in the film. She is the one burning ember in an otherwise inert, black-and-white landscape of monosyllabic Polish peasants and the boring Miss Goody Twoshoes, Ida. Wanda is complex. She is a highly tormented character who drinks, smokes, is sexy and sexually promiscuous, and reveals her superior intelligence through her sarcasm. In the scene where Wanda and Ida are brought to their relatives' graves by a morally compromised Polish peasant, Wanda reveals deep grief. You cannot help but like Wanda.

In a movie that touches on WW II and the Holocaust, I was sickened by how sympathetic Wanda was. Would Pawlikowski have been able to get away with placing a likeable Nazi at the center of such a film? If not, then why did he place a sexy and lovable Stalinist murderess at the center of his film? Answer: Because Stalinist murder does not carry the same taint as Nazi murder. Problem: the millions tortured and murdered in the name of Communism are just as dead as the millions murdered in the name of Nazism.

There are volumes of history and hours of debate transcripts behind the issues that "Ida" touches on. Most filmgoers will have no idea of any of this and much of the film will pass right over their heads. Reviews on the International Movie Database reveal this. Sincere and intelligent filmgoers were unmoved and befuddled by "Ida." Key pieces of information are never articulated: Poland was occupied by Nazis. Nazis persecuted and murdered Polish Catholics as well as Jews. Some Poles betrayed Jews. Some Poles were heroic and saved Jews. Many Poles were neither heroic nor villainous. Everyone was afraid for his or her life. A thousand years of history preceded the Nazi era, and every word and gesture has history behind it. There are no easy answers.

"Ida" falls into predictable traps. Its Jewish character, Wanda, is fascinating and verbal, worldly and morally compromised. Its Catholic character is pure, but boring and simpleminded. These stereotypes are trite and unworthy of any serious film.


Towards the end of the film, one major character leaves the movie and the other character is left to pursue an underdeveloped and aborted subplot that serves no end except to add extra minutes to the runtime. 

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