Gloomy Episode of Poland's History

in 38th Toronto International Film Festival

by André Roy

For his fourth feature film, director Pawel Pawliskowski — acclaimed for The Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) — returns to his homeland after living and working in England. With Ida, the Polish director fulfills his long sought duty to the past: disclosing the silence of the Poles, their implacable Catholicism and their submission to the communist state. Set in 1963, the filmmaker confronts his homeland’s dark past during and after World War II, when Poland was the main site of the genocide of Jews, and later became a communist state under the Warsaw Pact.

The first shots reveal a convent in which a young woman lives. Her name is Anna, and she is a novitiate nun on the verge of taking her vows. But before that happens, the Mother Superior commands Anna to meet her aunt Wanda, the young woman’s sole surviving relative, who has asked to see her. Anna will discover a past full of deadly secrets, one being that she is Jewish and that her real name is Ida. Her naïve and angelic life will fall apart within a few days.

Her aunt Wanda is a liberated woman. In the past, as a state prosecutor, she brought to justice and condemned in Stalinist style trials opponents of the Nazis. Stoic, she mastered perfectly the lies that prevailed under the communist regime. The lucidity with which she judged her own situation and that of the State drove her to despair, drowning her sorrows in alcohol, as they say. All she wants now is to open her niece’s eyes by bringing her to the village where her folks once lived but, one day, vanished.

We slowly sink into a very gloomy episode of Poland’s history, rendered by coal-like blackness and sullied whites, a true metonymy for the atmosphere that ruled over that period. Everything is dull, sorrowful; the landscape is desolate and the village of her childhood muddy under a heavy sky; the streets are empty and the bars and restaurants depressing. Wanda, who was a member of the Polish resistance during the war, abandoned her sister and her family. The promise she made to protect them was broken after she left. The arrival of her niece acts as an opportunity to focus on her privileged life. The disappearance of her relatives is not as important in her mind as is her will to save Ida from ignorance; she wants her niece to understand the truth about the country she lives in, where Catholicism still impregnates minds and where communism has led to treachery and cowardice. As a member of the nomenklatura she knows a bit about the fact that Catholicism and Communism, far from being antagonistic, are tied together in lies and propaganda.

While on a night out with her aunt, the young girl regains her identity when she meets a young jazz musician who plays a languorous piece from John Coltrane. In a moment of tenderness shared with him, Ida will measure the extent of the tragedy of her origins and the torments of her aunt. Later, disgusted with the elite life she leads, feeling duped by the state, Wanda takes her own life by jumping from the window of her apartment.

Ida and Wanda feel the full weight of destiny, bottled in as they are in History, a fate rendered metaphorically by shots that are deflexed, barely showing the characters squeezed at the bottom of the frame under a vast space at the top of the screen. A subtle melancholy emanates from the impeccable construction of the picture, practically devoid of colour. The clearness of the writing and the abounding poetry of the narrative, added to the way the filmmaker captures the self-awareness of his characters, illustrates the stress he puts on their lucidity rather than on the irreparable desolation they perceive around them, making him a watchful and uncompromising observer of his homeland’s reality. We now know who the victims are.

Edited by Leslie James