Monday, August 4, 2014

Unformed: Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida

Ida, by the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, has a harsh, spare lyricism, like Bertolt Brecht’s poetry; the camera set-ups are simple, basic, but the framing is unconventional, jarring until you get used to it, though Lukasza Zal’s lighting is lovely. You feel chilled and bruised while you’re watching and shaken up afterwards, but your vision is clearer. The setting is Poland in the early sixties. Agata Trzebuchowska plays Anna, an orphan raised in the convent who’s now about to take her vows; the Mother Superior at her convent (Halina Skoczynska) urges her first to visit the aunt she’s never known – who refused to adopt her when her parents died – before she becomes a nun. So she shows up at the door of this woman, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who tells Anna that she’s really a Jew named Ida Lebenstein whose parents, Wanda’s sister Roza and her husband, were killed in the Holocaust. Wanda has a brusque manner but she isn’t unkind to her niece; she offers her food and money (both of which Anna refuses). And on their second meeting, after she returns from work – she’s a judge – she’s warmer and more welcoming, showing the girl family photos and talking about her mother. Anna wants to visit her parents’ graves but Wanda says there are none and that she doesn’t even know how they died, but she agrees to drive the girl to the rural area where they disappeared. “What if you go up there and discover there’s no God?” she asks, playfully. She’s amused by this sweet, innocent Jewish girl who’s preparing to become a nun.

Kulesza is a superb actress, and in the course of the journey we find out a great deal about Wanda – that she’s alcoholic and that her only sexual relationships seem to be with men she picks up at bars when she’s drinking, that she fought in the Resistance and that after the war she became a person of some importance in the Communist regime, one of the judges presiding at the show trials in the early fifties. (She retains enough status to get released from jail – with an apology – when she’s arrested for drunk driving after she gets them into a minor accident.) And when, with some difficulty, they locate Szymon (Jerzy Trek), the farmer who hid Anna’s parents, we learn that Wanda had a little boy whom she left with her sister when she went off to fight and who perished along with her and her husband; it takes some time before we learn exactly what happened to them, and why Anna herself survived.

Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida
But we don’t learn much about Anna herself, because Pawlikowski and his co-writer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, want us to see her as a clean slate, a young woman who has had no worldly experience until, unexpectedly, she encounters her own past. Pawlikowski cast a non-professional in the role, presumably for just this reason. When De Sica hired non-actors for major roles in his movies – like the Sorbonne philosophy professor, Carlo Battisti, and the journalist, Maria Pia Castilio, who play the destitute pensioner and the housemaid in his masterpiece, Umberto D. – he was looking for faces that were right for the roles as he’d envisioned them but unfamiliar to Italian audiences, and he wanted people who wouldn't bring any acting tricks to their performances. But he knew he could coax performances out of them and shape them into the characters. Pawlikowski doesn’t do that with Trzebuchowska. Except for anger at her aunt for sleeping with a man she meets at the bar of the hotel where they spend the night, we don’t see any overt emotion from Anna; we have to deduce it from her behavior. For example, when the parish priest in the farm town who gives her shelter for the night (while Wanda sits in jail) asks her if she has any connection to the dead Jews she and her aunt have been asking about, Anna says no and we understand that she hasn’t yet accepted the history she’s just abruptly learned about. The filmmaker wants her to remain a cipher, played upon by circumstances; he wants her decisions after her journey – first to put off taking orders, then to sample the secular life, and finally (and surprisingly) to return to the convent – to remain essentially mysterious, the consequence less of personality or feeling than of events. (You can detect Brecht’s influence here.) As far as we can see, Anna chose to enter the convent because she had been placed in the orphanage by the local priest; it’s the life she fell into. After the sudden death of her aunt, she cleans up Wanda’s house, dresses in her clothes, smokes one of her cigarettes and drinks some of her liquor – she’s trying out a new identity, but it’s transparently someone else’s. And we don’t get a sense of who exactly she sees herself as when she sleeps with Lis (David Ogrodnik), the sax player she and Wanda gave a lift to on their trip (he and his band had a gig at the hotel). He’s knocked out by her; he asks her to come with him afterwards, to listen to the band play and walk on the beach. “And then?” she asks him, and he replies, “The usual. Have a life.” But she elects to have another one – the life she threw over when her aunt died. The movie doesn’t tell us why.

Like The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s documentary, released early in the year, about his experience of living in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge – which employs wooden dolls as figures for the victims of the Kampuchean Revolution, to signify the absence of historical images – nothing in Ida feels like anything you’ve seen in another movie. The scene where the two women locate the site where their family is buried is amazing – somehow abrasive and delicate at the same time. The only moment that didn’t work for me was the final one, a long take of Anna walking along the road. Pawlikowski’s point must be that her future is undecided, but considering that she’s just opted for the regulated (and nearly silent) life of the convent, where all decisions are made for her, the image doesn’t match. The director seems to want to retain a kind of open-endedness about his protagonist, but this isn’t The Nun’s Story, Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 film about a nun (Audrey Hepburn) who, stirred up by her experience of the world during the Second World War, reneges on her commitment to the religious life. (That movie ends, memorably, with the main character walking out into the street while the camera remains behind in the convent room where she abandoned her uniform.) Pawlikowski wants to have it both ways at the end: he closes off his protagonist’s choices yet wants us to feel that she’s not yet formed. But what can ever form her if not what we’ve seen her go through in the course of the picture?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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