Polish Film Explores an ‘Ida’ State of Mind

If Edward Steichen or Ansel Adams made a movie, it might look like Pawel Pawlikowski’s small gem “Ida,” shot in luminous monochrome as a string of stark meditative stills. Although set in the early 1960’s in the desolate, austere Polish countryside, we could be anywhere, anytime, because the state where “Ida” takes place is actually a state of mind.

When we first meet Anna, she is a novice in the rural convent where she has lived since unknown persons left her on its doorstep as an infant in 1945. She is about to make the irrevocable decision to take her final vows. But before she can take that step, she is ordered to make contact with a surviving relative who has recently surfaced: her aunt, Wanda Gruz, a vodka-slugging, Communist zealot who has been demoted from state prosecutor to petty magistrate. Anna and Wanda are as black and white as is the cinematography.

Anna travels to Gdansk to meet this aunt, who answers the door bleary-eyed, cigarette dangling between lipstick-smeared lips, as a one-night stand hastily dresses just within Anna’s field of vision. Wanda, who earned the nickname “Red Wanda” for the many people she convicted during the Communist purges, gruffly informs Anna that she is Jewish, that her real name is Ida, and that the two of them must set out to discover what happened to Anna/Ida’s parents during the war. For Wanda, the decision to make this trip will be as life altering as Anna’s to take her final vows, the consequences as irrevocable and stark.

Thus begins a road-trip with the unlikeliest of traveling companions. “I’m the slut and you’re the little saint,” Wanda proclaims. Thelma and Louise this ain’t.

As the two travel to Anna/ Ida’s birthplace, we see the bleak lunar state that is postwar, post-Communist Poland, a country painfully suspended in time, overwhelmed by the weight of such cruel and tyrannical personal and political histories. Here and there are glimpses of mirth (usually activated by large quantities of vodka) and regeneration (accompanied by the relief of a John Coltrane soundtrack), but those who lived through the horrors of war still outnumber the luckier new generation coming of age in a time of peace.

With her gritty prosecutor’s relentless tenacity, Wanda gets to the bottom of what happened to Anna/Ida’s parents. Along the way, we encounter the countless contradictions that existed in Poland during the war and that live on through its survivors. Catholics either turned on or saved their Jewish neighbors (or, in some cases, both). Then came the Stalinist purges, again pitting Pole against Pole. While “Ida” is at its heart a film about Anna/Ida and Wanda’s relationship, Pawlikowski candidly addresses the issues that colored his country’s history, and affect it still.

Ida director

Director Pawel Pawlikowski

At 80 minutes, “Ida” is as complete and satisfying a film as a cinemaphile could wish for. Agata Kulesza is riveting as Wanda, and Agata Trzebuchowska radiates a luminescent innocence as Anna/ Ida. A soundtrack dominated by the mellifluous Coltrane, and a cinematographer who successfully exploits the richness of a gray palette, are icing on the cake.

Ultimately, “Ida” is an examination of the powers of memory, ignorance and free will. For Wanda and Anna/Ida, the choices and contexts are different, but the stakes are the same. Was Anna/Ida victim or blessed as Anna, a girl as ignorant of Ida as she was of the existence of free will? Who will she choose to be, now that she knows what she would be giving up? And how can Wanda integrate the answers she receives to the painful questions that have tortured her for so long? Who is she now that she can no longer fend off her memories?

“Ida” is one of those rare, not-to-be-missed, movies. Especially during this season of mind-numbing, revenue-driven summer blockbusters, it is a reminder that film is at its core a medium of art.

Pictured above: Anna/Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) star in “Ida.” Courtesy of Music Box Films

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