The new Polish film “Ida” revolves around a secret.
But the secret is discovered early on, setting the story in motion. And if you’ve ever seen a Holocaust film before, it’s not an especially shocking secret SPOILER ALERT!: A young nun learns that her parents were Jewish, and that they were killed during the war. The rest of the film charts the young nun’s journey of self-discovery and investigation, accompanied by the bitter, alcoholic aunt she never knew she had. What makes “Ida” interesting isn’t its plot, which reminded me a bit of Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir Les Enfants,” about a Jewish boy sheltered by a Catholic boarding school in Vichy France, but its attention to detail, austere style and striking black-and-white photography.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, “Ida” is an extremely well-made film — beautiful, well-acted and, at just 80 minutes, brisk and involving. It’s clearly the work of an auteur, which might be why some have compared Pawlikowski to Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. And I understand the comparison. But I don’t think it’s deserved.
“Ida” is a good film, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to plumbing the same emotional, spiritual or philosophical depths as a great film by Bergman or Bresson. It asks interesting questions about faith, guilt and redemption, but sets them aside to focus on the young nun’s secular awakening and exploration of the outside world. In other words, a film that started out wrestling with issues of religion and morality transforms into a coming-of-age tale. I like coming-of-age tales, but the first two-thirds of “Ida” are far more intriguing than the more conventional final third.
What makes “Ida” compelling is the relationship between Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) — known as Anna at the convent — and her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). The two appear to be opposites. Ida is innocent and devout, while Anna is a nonbeliever and sinner — weary, angry and sometimes vicious, known as Red Wanda for her work interrogating enemies of Poland’s communist government.
But something interesting happens during their trip to the country to the home where Ida’s parents once lived: Ida becomes a little more like her aunt. She watches Wanda question those who might know where Ida’s parents are buried and how they died, and begins to learn how she, too, might extract information from people who are reluctant to give it. She is aided in this process by the fact that people are generally more willing to trust and open up to a nun than a tough, accusatory woman. Does she take advantage of her habit and Catholicism to learn what she wants to know? Yes. Is she right to do so? Yes.
In tone, “Ida” is somber and muted, which blunts the impact of the revelations and harrowing plot twists that occur later in the film. When Wanda SPOILER ALERT! commits suicide, it feels inevitable, almost fated. When a farmer describes how he killed Ida’s parents but spared her, his explanation is what we expected, rather than a shocking surprise. Even Ida’s liaison with a young jazz musician feels predictable.
The film often seems to be marching relentlessly toward a foregone conclusion, with Wanda finding the return to the past too much to bear and Ida finding it liberating and edifying. Much as I appreciated “Ida’s” rigorousness and formal beauty, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been a better film if it had been more willing to throw the audience some curveballs — to take the story in a more unexpected direction. As soon as we meet the jazz musician, we know what his purpose is — to tempt Ida. He’s more of a mechanism for exploring carnal pleasures than a real human being.
“Ida” is impressive filmmaking. But it doesn’t always resonate emotionally or intellectually. It’s a good film, and I recommend it. But it could have been even better.
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