Silent Spirits

in 7th Abu Dhabi Film Festival

by Janusz Wróblewski

Quiet and unassuming on first impression, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is in fact a provocative, gripping movie. This passionate and well thought-out story successfully debunks national and religious stereotypes associated with identity. Pawlikowski is not afraid to discuss issues which evoke strong emotions. Shot in black-and-white, this austere drama is set in the Poland of the ’60s. Taken on a trip down memory lane, viewers are forced to confront events that somehow slipped into historical oblivion. In that respect, Ida resembles Pasikowski’s Aftermath (Poklosie).  The movie delves into the crimes committed by Poles against Jews, or the so-called “golden harvest”. It also deals with the guilt of Stalinist prosecutors of Jewish ancestry, responsible for judicial murder of alleged public enemies and leaders of the Polish Underground State. Marked by philosophical detachment and quietly undemonstrative, the film shuns overemotional outbursts. This journey into a troubled past is silent and reflective. In its course, the eponymous Ida (played with a great sense of emotional nuance by amateur actress Agata Trzebuchowska) discovers her Jewish origins. An 18-year-old orphan and a Catholic novice, she shares her journey with her only living relative, an aunt who earned herself the moniker of “Bloody Wanda” (Agata Kulesza, who astonishes).  A Holocaust survivor, the aunt used to be one of the current regime’s bigwigs, but is now reduced to an inebriated human wreck. Acting as a disruptive force, she turns their orderly life on its head. Their priorities change dramatically, as faith in God and contempt for earthly temptations are suddenly questioned. Pawlikowski forces his protagonists to face dramatic choices. Ida’s naive faith is put to the test. Disillusioned with communism, the aunt now wrestles with her conscience. Where others would see only contradictions, Pawlikowski notices a fascinating entanglement of fates, choices and identities. He does not attempt to untangle the knot at all costs. Instead, he tries to demonstrate that this complex tangle is an integral part of life. This is particularly true for countries with a turbulent history, such as Poland.

Only an outsider could paint his homeland in such an unusual manner, and such is the case with the 57-year-old director of Ida, who has spent most of his life abroad. Ida is the first movie that the author of Last Resort, My Summer of Love and Woman in the Fifth shot in his native Poland. A filmmaker and Catholic of Jewish ancestry, jazz lover, would-be poet, emigrant and artist, Pawlikowski keeps asking the same question over and over again: Who are we?

Those who expect Ida to be yet another cinematic attempt to analyse controversial Polish-Jewish relations could not be more wrong. Both of the main female characters are inspired by real people, and the on-screen developments echo real-life events. For instance, Wanda bears some resemblance to both Julia Brystygierowa, otherwise known as “Bloody Luna”, and Stalinist prosecutor Halina Wolinska-Brus. The latter actually became acquainted with Pawlikowski in Oxford, where she lived with her husband, a university professor. Pawlikowski was one of his students. She struck the young man as a lovely and witty elderly lady. Pawlikowski was deeply shocked when he later learned about her murky past. He even wanted to shoot a documentary about her, but she refused to talk to him. Ida shares some traits with priest Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, who found out about his Jewish roots after he had become a cleric.

Similar to great poetry, this perfectly made film astonishes and bedazzles, unveiling an entirely different dimension of existence. The narrative of Ida unfolds through silences, spiritual music by John Coltrane and vertically composed, sparsely populated images. This overwhelming emptiness is rarely filled with words. Brilliantly shot by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, the slightly compressed images evoke a metaphysical yearning, with invisible pain and a sense of alienation lurking in the background. Lasting just 80 minutes, Ida is much shorter than an average full feature. Not because its director had little to say; quite the contrary, Ida speaks volumes, yet what it says is never explicit. Perhaps this is what makes this film so beautiful.

Edited by Carmen Gray