Friday, May 9, 2014

IDA (2013)

Playing at Film Forum is a little film from Poland called IDA, which is doing the nigh impossible. Through quiet, thoughtful observations of two women from a family destroyed by the Holocaust, it approaches the historical tragedy from a very different perspective, disquieting because of what it doesn't show or say but what is often left unspoken. Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski chooses his words carefully,  or abandons them altogether, as he follows the mismatched pair through small villages and cold forests on a quest for the truth behind a painful family secret.

Shot in stark black and white, IDA perfectly captures the bleak hopelessness of Communist Eastern Europe as it existed for decades and in some cases still endures if you go off the beaten path in former Soviet satellite nations. The atmosphere is still permeated with the aura of tragic recovery that this film vividly captures so well. The sky is perpetually overcast, the landscapes barren and forboding. The cities are largely empty, reminders of the previous generations extinguished decades previously. Photographed primarily in motionless single shots, the film at times resembles a series of aged snapshots of a time long past. The unpaved roads, the jazz band (the genre became very popular in Soviet Europe), the suspicious citizens, it's all so eerily accurate. And what of these women? The title character, Ida (or Anna, her adoptive name), is discovering the truth of her identity after being raised and nurtured into a life of nunnery in a convent. In the first scene, she learns she is in fact not an orphan and has one surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda. The mother superior insists that Anna visit Wanda and stay with her as long as she needs before taking her final vows. Their first encounter is awkward, almost confrontational. Wanda reveals that Anna is in fact named Ida, and she is Jewish, the sole descendant of a family exterminated during the war. Wanda has become a Soviet judge, sentencing enemies of the state to death, but seeing her niece, who is a dead ringer for her deceased mother, brings back vivid memories of her lost family and an important crime whose culprits she has never brought to justice.

First-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska is appropriately angelic and curious for the role, and makes a large impression with those deep searching eyes, but it is the cast's other Agata, Agata Kulesza, who runs away with the film as Wanda. Her character is sardonic, bitter, driven by anger and self-hatred, and absolutely captivating throughout all of her moods. Kulesza has won two Best Actress awards on the festival circuit and in a more just world she would be in the running for an Oscar. It's one of the most moving performances you'll see this year.

I'm positive that the ending of the film will divide viewers down the middle. Personally I hope to see the film again soon to catch the nuances and moments I may have missed, and to re-evaluate how I feel about the paths of Wanda and Ida by the rolling of the credits. The fact that you will keep thinking about this film days later is a testament to its very effective dramatic power. There is a narrative moment involving a stained glass window that left me breathless. Cutting through many other releases of grander scope and scale, IDA has quickly vaulted to the front of my list of favorite films of the year. See it.

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