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  • Writer's pictureMalak AlSayyad

‘Ida’ Film Review: A long take on Polish memory

Still from the film "Ida", PC: Opus film

“Ida”, Paweł Pawlikowski’s brutally simple yet deeply powerful film is as much a deep-dive into collective Polish memory as it is about the conflicting emotions of a novitiate nun’s journey through her own past. The film swept up two Oscars at the 2015 Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language film & Best Cinematography), but was less well received at home.

In a country that has recently passed a controversial law against forms of holocaust guilt attribution, it is no surprise that a film with a strong message about Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities has caused some backlash. One might try to link this to the rise of right-wing populism in the country, but in fact the controversy over this film was not limited to one side of the political spectrum. By means of a compelling narrative presented through stunning cinematography, the director confronts his native Poland with a dark and uncomfortable side of its history. One that carries an important message for the present day.

“Ida” tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who at the start of the film is days away from taking her vows. Her mother superior at the convent, where she has spent her entire life since being orphaned as a child, sends her away to meet her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). At their first encounter, this woman who was once known as ‘Red Wanda’, a reference to her time as a staunch communist state prosecutor, reveals Anna’s true family history to her. The young novitiate’s real name is Ida and she comes from a Jewish family that was murdered during the holocaust. In this pivotal scene, Wanda offers only an insensitively brash explanation and walks around the house smoking a cigarette as the viewer is left staring at Ida, who is composed, yet in shock at the revelation. Her wide, expressive eyes and young features exert a strong emotional pull on the viewer in this moment and throughout the entire film. This young non-professional actress has eyes that can tell a whole story. I can’t help but see in them the looks of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Together, Wanda and Ida go on a journey into their past and across Poland to retrieve the remains of their murdered family members and reach some form of reconciliation with their unspoken history. They start to unravel bits and pieces of their own identity and, in doing so, pull at the threads of Polish memory regarding the historical fate of its Jewish population.

In one scene, the son of Wanda’s former neighbor bends down crying while he sits inside the hole in the ground out of which he has just dug up the skull of her son. He was the one who had delivered Ida as a child to the convent and murdered her mother, her father and her older cousin, Wanda’s son. Until this scene, the viewer is never invited to view Wanda as a Jewish victim herself; here we see her in pain for the first time, although we are not given enough of a moment to fully register that pain.

Indeed, the film never lets the viewer engage directly with the scenes or even the history they refer to. There is no soundtrack and very little diegetic sound to guide our emotions, but there are narrative elements in every corner of every shot. Quite literally in fact, for most of the film the characters are confined to the margins of the frame, depriving viewers of the satisfaction of taking in a full action or even a full person at once. The camera is tilted upwards and rarely ever moves. Most shots are long takes that last a little too long, yet don’t wait for an action to be fully completed. The space above weighs down heavily on every scene, almost pushing the characters out of the frame to center on an absence of people, a dead space.

A plot twist towards the end of the film, after Wanda suddenly commits suicide, changes the pace of the film completely. The narrative jumps awkwardly as Ida returns to her aunt’s home and explores every aspect of Wanda’s sinful and adulterous life at once. She wears her late aunt’s dresses, forces herself to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol; she suddenly reunites with a musician who had taken an interest in her and sleeps with him. The narrative jumps seem jarring and removed from the raw feeling of the rest of the film. This sequence is short and the events it recounts confusing. They culminate in Ida’s return to the convent after her lover fails to give a satisfactory answer to her repeated question: “And then what?”

The film ends by breaking all of its own rules: An audible soundtrack accompanies Ida home as she walks towards us, center-frame. Her glance looks past us, in a final, shaky long take we lose our grip on all the threads of Polish memory this film has pulled up and we abandon, just as Ida does her lover, all the questions left unresolved. Despite this unexpected ending and the narrative jumps leading up to it, Pawlikowski suceeds at confronting the viewer with the complex internal struggle of the film’s main character and the dark points in Polish history that many might wish to forget. He manages to provoke thoughts and questions, but not to resolve them.

That is the viewer’s task.

Ida (2013)

Director Paweł Pawlikowski Writers Paweł Pawlikowski (screenplay), Rebecca Lenkiewicz (screenplay) Stars Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik Rating PG-13 Running Time 1h 22m Genre Drama

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