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Austere 'Ida' paints stark Poland

 Posted: 2:00 AM June 19, 2014

As a work, "Ida" provokes several questions: isn't cinema ultimately a narrative-driven medium? And isn't one of the central reasons we seek out films to be told a story — one that is evocative, poignant, even haunting, wherein we hope to lose ourselves in characters and situations that move us? And when a movie disappoints, isn't it ultimately because it fails to resonate in some emotive and appealing way an aspect of the human condition?

If you love film, if you find movies in all forms to be compelling, good even when they are bad, then this film by the talented writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski is worth finding.

Pawlikowski, for the first time, returns to his country of origin, Poland (he was raised in Great Britain), and, with an austerity that is unflinching, tells the brittle story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young Catholic novitiate on the cusp of taking her final vows. The year is 1962.

Raised as an orphan by cloistered nuns, she is informed by the mother superior that she has one living relative, an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), the sister of her deceased mother. And she is told that she must visit her aunt prior to her ordination.

Obedient to a fault, Anna agrees to leave the convent for the first time and venture forth by bus to a city where she is to spend at least a week with Wanda. And thus begins her journey, beautifully photographed in severe black and white using a format ratio that creates an almost square picture instead of a broad landscape.

It is winter in communist Poland, the sun barely visible in a gunmetal sky, the monochromatic feel not just restricted to the sky and fields but to the bleak city streets and its people. Poland has been devastated by its history.

Anna finally meets her aunt, a former prosecutor and now a magistrate, an unexpectedly ribald, chain-smoking woman who sits her down and tells her about her family. She begins by sharing photographs, explaining that Anna's real name is Ida Lebenstein and she is a Jew. Her parents are deceased, lost during WWII. Anna asks where they are buried and Wanda tells her that Jews were not permitted to have graveyards.

Instead of returning to the convent, she asks Wanda to take her to her birthplace in hopes of finding someone who might know what happened to her parents and if interred, where. Wanda agrees and the two set out on a road trip of sorts as Wanda uses her prosecutorial skills to question people, who are evasive at best, about the Lebenstein family.

It soon becomes obvious that, like the surrounding landscape in the flat winter sunlight, Anna is absent all emotion. She is unreadable, unreactive, with the exception of her large dark eyes, which briefly widen as she experiences not just the greater world and the charm of a young man, but the alcoholic cynicism of Wanda whose regrets are writ large in her face in unguarded moments.

So much of the film is desolate, stark and the search for Anna's parents opens a door on a history of betrayal and anti-Semitism that has left an indelible scar on Poland and its people. Gradually, Anna and Wanda discover truths that those who remember can only hope would be swept away into the recesses of Poland's past.

While the story is fraught with possibilities, at its center is Anna, who seems incapable of any kind of heartfelt response. Her stoicism is inviolable. There is a painful scene when her family's history is graphically displayed, a moment that should call forth a cry of wrenching grief and despair if not anger.

Nevertheless, Anna seems detached, hidden. Hence, it is difficult to care about her as a character, this young novitiate, this innocent. In scene after scene, the camera, which rarely moves, focuses on her flawless face, on her porcelain skin, her expression unbending, as if promising a change that never occurs.

In contrast is Wanda. Her existential angst is evident in all she does, her disillusionment with life all but complete, her abiding emptiness intensified by an absence of faith in anything, least of all the communist state, now a dystopian reality.

However, like Anna, she is not a character that easily makes a connection with the audience, for, in her own way, she is as guarded and detached as is Anna.

"Ida" is a complex, maddening film, gorgeous to behold, ever intriguing, but also impossible to gather in and welcome. How it ends is almost too contrived, too easy.

If Anna is even briefly conflicted, or in any personal turmoil, it is never revealed, not even in the final scenes as she walks along a narrow road, resolute and seemingly unthinking. In the first act of the film Anna is asked by her aunt, "What are you thinking?" And Anna answers, "I'm not thinking."

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