Monday, June 30, 2014

Wayward paths to devotion

JB's a bad blogger! It's true, I have been neglectful of late with the posts. Genuine busyness and occasional cynicism are my only excuses. I will heretofore attempt to make amends, dear readers. (That was plural, which implies my cheerful assumption that you are more than one in number.) Now that we are in the hazy hot days of summer, let us turn our attention to winter... monochromatic winter! And Poland. And nuns...

Ida follows a young orphan raised in a convent who, on the verge of taking her vows, learns that she has an aunt living in a nearby city. The orphan shows no curiosity but her Mother Superior obliges her to visit this aunt before devoting her life to Christ. The orphan’s name is Anna, but upon meeting Aunt Wanda, a former state prosecutor, Anna learns that her real name is Ida, and, what’s more, that she’s Jewish. A revelation under any circumstance—especially if you’re about to become a nun!—but this is Poland, 1962, where being the orphaned daughter of Jews automatically supposes a link one to the single greatest atrocity of the 20th century. Ida’s parents disappeared during the war, and hardboiled Wanda has just enough information and just enough sympathy for her reticent niece to initiate what will become something of a road movie and something of a detective story, a journey to unearth the truth about Ida’s parents.

Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) and written by Pawlikowski and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ida, clocking in at a trim yet unhurried 80 minutes, unfolds in the exquisite, captivating manner of a precisely sculpted novella. Every scene is infused with quiet mystery, yet in hindsight every moment is essential. Credit for the mystery and compaction both should be divided between numerous artists, of which I’ll name just a few. Ida is played by Agata Trzebuchowska, Wanda by Agata Kulesza. With her opaque, liquid eyes refusing entry, that chin dimple like the mark of some chosen one, and those wide, childlike planes of her face always catching the ashen winter light, Trzebuchowska is a presence at once luminous and demure. Kulesza conveys a wizened weariness that gradually shifts from sly cynicism toward something more heartbreaking. Ida and “Red Wanda” make a fascinatingly idiosyncratic pair, one a genuine innocent protected from earthly vice by her stoicism and nun’s habit, the other a lonely, cold-eyed if still seductive woman somewhere on the far side of middle-age who smokes too much, drinks too much, and sleeps with men out of habit—a character made by complicated by her past participation in the 1950s show trials that brought opponents of socialism to their knees.

Confined—and liberated too—by the boxy, Academy ratio frame, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s stunning silvery black and white cinematography frequently places the characters at the bottom of the image, leaving space overhead for architecture, freshly dug earth or the heavens to loom like some elusive god, uncertain future or harrowing family legacy. Before it even begins Wanda teasingly warns that their journey might end with Ida discovering that there is no God. And indeed, as this story makes its serpentine way there are moments when faith seems in question and unholy new routes open themselves for Ida. Whatever routes she follows, whatever distance she travels, there is however always a sense that Ida is about wayward paths to devotion. And to self-realization, for this young orphan, and for a country still reeling from one trauma and deep in the grips of another.

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