Tuesday, 25 March 2014

IDA - A Polish Film (2013)

Poland in 1962; outside, in shades of grey, a convent is set in a bleak and snowy winter landscape.  Inside it is Ida, a novice nun, who has lived there all her life; a place where no talking is allowed and the only sound at mealtimes is the muffled clatter of spoons on soup plates.

She is about to take her vows, but the Mother Superior calls her to her room to tell her that she has an aunt that she has never known about and who has never answered letters from the convent inviting her to see her niece.  Since she is her only family, the Mother Superior tells her to go and see her before she finally commits herself to Jesus.

Ida’s aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a judge who has fallen out of favour with her superiors and takes solace in alcohol, cigarettes and casual sex.  She gives Ida a frosty welcome and she is sent on her way, but before she has caught her bus, Wanda has a change of heart, finds her, and takes her back to her flat to tell her more about her mother.  Together they embark on a journey into their past in rural Poland and the events and encounters on the way affect both their lives.

In this film Pawel Pawlikowski has co-written and directed a quiet gem, a masterpiece of subtlety and understatement, where even the most surprising events in the narrative are almost thrown away or hidden from view. Unlike recent Oscar winners he has admirably resisted the obvious temptation to sensationalize and dwell graphically on dramatic events and their emotional consequences. 

I will resist the impulse to tell you more of the story and I urge you to see it yourself.

I have only a couple of criticisms, which might have improved the film still further.  Most importantly Ida, played by Agata Trzebuchowska, shows almost no emotion throughout. I think that this was probably imposed on her by the director and, whilst it is consistent with the style of the film and with her repressed life in the convent, it doesn’t help to explain her choices near the end of the story. Some small indications of emotional volatility here and there, as the film unfolds, would work better later. Sorry to be so guarded about that aspect of the narrative but you will understand that I can’t say more. 

Something else also distracted me. We take it for granted that anyone can travel around confidently and catch buses but if you have spent all your life in a convent it’s not so obvious. Perhaps a brief verbal or visual reference to Ida outside the convent travelling to a nearby town would have helped.  It’s a much less important point, however, and I can understand why the director didn’t deal with it.

If the film, visually, is in shades of grey, the music chosen for the soundtrack is certainly not. One of the characters plays the saxophone and we are treated to superbly played jazz pieces written by the likes of Coltrane. Joanna Kulig also sings Polish pop songs of the period with professional confidence.

Ida is Pawlikowski’s first film in Polish. It has been a worthy winner of several international film festival awards and is in the best traditions of European films. If you like European cinema don’t miss it. I saw it in Polish with subtitles. Full details are here.


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