Grappling with Faith in Shades of Gray: Pavel Pawlikowski’s IDA

by Michael Fox

Set in Poland in the early 1960s and shot in a 1.37 aspect ratio, Ida (2013) is high-grade catnip for aficionados of vintage black-and-white Eastern European cinema.  The latest film by Pavel Pawlikowski, one of the most astute and insightful observers of human nature working in movies today, is the furthest thing from a nostalgia trip, however.  An unfiltered, unblinking journey into the interior—of the land of Pawlikowski’s childhood, and the enigmatic psyches of its female protagonists—Ida confronts the crimes of the last century and, inevitably, the responsibility of living in this one. 

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Ida pairs a naïve, inexperienced teenager whose entire life has been spent in a convent with a dissolute, disillusioned judge who embraces the specific, self-destructive bitterness of a once-idealistic Marxist. The women are related, and Jewish, we discover (along with Ida) in the first 10 minutes, and set off on a road trip to find and unearth their shared, buried past. The mystery unravels, along with Ida and Wanda’s carefully constructed personas, in a procession of sunless daytime landscapes, unexpected meetings, handed-down history and shocking choices. One of the best films we’ll see all year, Ida brilliantly compresses more layers and contradictions in its succinct 80 minutes than one has any right to expect.

Pawlikowski has lived in Britain since 1977, beginning his career with BBC documentaries before gravitating to theatrical narratives. The Last Resort (2000), My Summer of Love (2004) and to a lesser degree The Woman in the Fifth (2011) were well-received studies of opposites attracting, and can be seen clearly as prologues to Ida.

Director Pawel Pavlikowski. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

The new film conveys a particular era in Poland with its blasts of jazz, nods to youthful experimentation and hints of deeper change. In a phone interview, Pawlikowski recalled that Poland was the most open country in the Communist constellation in the early ‘60s, and that he sought to infuse Ida with that positive and anarchic energy.

“Poland was the camp that allowed the most oxygen in,” the filmmaker said. “A lot of Russian friends of my generation or older learned Polish in order to read the Polish press, which was much freer. Polish rock music was the rock music that influenced other countries in the Eastern bloc. It was actually a happening place, strangely.”

That window closed in 1965 and even more so in 1968, Pawlikowski notes: “So it wasn’t exactly like a transformation for the better. It was just like six years of grace, maybe, after Stalin’s death, and there was hope for socialism with a human face when [Wladyslaw] Gomulka came to power and censorship was weaker and jazz came in and pop music came in and new ideas came in. And good cinema was made in Poland, and great jazz. That was a really great time, when Poland’s culture was one of the interesting places on earth. My film is a kind of homage to that, in a way. I wanted to make a film in the same spirit, to make a film that doesn’t imitate any other films, that didn’t look to the West. That’s Polish through and through but without the complexes that go with it,” Pawlikowski says with a wry laugh.

The filmmaker grows serious, though, recalling some of the comments and questions he received on the festival circuit since the film’s premiere at Telluride in September. With its echoes of the Holocaust, and its investigation of earned and unearned faith in the modern world, Ida invites discussion and provokes heated responses. As the experimental filmmaker and art historian Standish Lawder, who passed away this week, once observed, “How one reacts and sees and deals with a film has more to do with one’s own background and sensibility than the object itself. They’re profoundly subjective experiences.”

“When I showed it in Toronto at the festival, a lady in the first row burst out crying at the Q&A and her daughter explained to me that she lived in a small Polish town and she harbored Jews through the war and she was really upset to see this film where a Polish family does what they do,” Pawlikowski says. “Then, in Poland, an older gentleman said to me, ‘You are making this film for young generations, and what will they deduce from your film? That it wasn’t the Germans who killed the Jews but the Polish who killed the Jews. How can you do this?’ I said, ‘Oh God, it’s certainly not about that.’ ”

Agata Trzebuchowska in IDA.

Agata Trzebuchowska in IDA.

With a wan chuckle, Pawlikowski adds, “There’s a lot of frustrated people who would like me to make a different film, and who would like to use the film for debating subjects, and I’m doing my best to say, ‘Watch this film, it works at a different level, it tries to be slightly temporal or timeless.’ When I show it in Colombia, or Korea, or Spain, where there are graves and massacres and civil wars within living memory, they can get this film, and not on the level of that one particular debate which is going on in Poland and America but in a slightly more universal way.”

Pawlikowski has downplayed his own family history in an effort to discourage viewers from interpreting Ida in an overly narrow way. At the same time, he doesn’t hide it.

“In ways that it might be relevant to the film, my mother was from a very traditional Catholic family and my father’s mother was Jewish and she died in the camp, at Auschwitz, to be precise. Not that it influenced me because both of [my parents] were kind of secular, cool customers in the ‘60s and ‘50s. The films that are made [now] in Poland, and the books that are published, they deal with this issue quite head on, Polish-Jewish relations, and there’s still controversy and a lot of healthy debate because with democracy and freedom of the press there’s all sorts of things being discussed and analyzed, and there’s no end to the debate. I didn’t want to make a debating film. I think Agnieszka Holland’s film [In Darkness] is much more debate-worthy, and she’s much more of a social filmmaker than I am.”

Pawlikowski would prefer to talk about Ida’s journey, awakening and examination of faith.

“It’s good that Ida confuses the expected, the norm, because when you have a film about a nun that leaves a monastery and kind of discovers life, the usual mechanism of storytelling in Western cinema is that she gets liberated and sees the beauty of life and it’s all very exciting. That would have been more obvious in terms of what you expect from this kind of story. But I’m curious about faith and about identity and about paradoxes of one lifetime—how one person can be several things—and about faith not as a kind of tribal belonging but as something transcendental and spiritual.”

 

Michael Fox is a longtime film critic, journalist and teacher. He also curates and hosts the Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics Institute in downtown San Francisco.

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