At The Dallas International Film Festival of Dallas I asked artistic director James Faust if there was one film I should see what would it be. He told me about IDA. At the festival i regretably couldn't make either of the two screenings. I knew the film was directed by highly acclaimed Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love). I had seen the above trailer and was even moved by it. But nonetheless I didn't go see the film. I had to wait two weeks later till I could get a screener and watch this emotional powerhouse of a holocaust story. That was 2 weeks ago and I've been itching to watch the film on the big screen. All I can think about is how badly I want to see this again, as A.O. Scott said "It haunted me. I can't wait to see it again". The film comes out today and I guarantee I'll be seeing it once again…if not multiple times. It's a film that really sticks with you. If my enthusiasm hasn't inspired you. I would like to convince you to see this film by forgoing my usual "Friday roundup" style and simply give you a full review of the best film of 2014 (if at least best foreign film). So please click through.
Film's Synopsis from website:
"18-year old Anna (stunning newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), a sheltered orphan raised in a convent, is preparing to become a nun when the Mother Superior insists she first visit her sole living relative. Naïve, innocent Anna soon finds herself in the presence of her aunt Wanda (Agneta Kulesza), a worldly and cynical Communist Party insider, who shocks her with the declaration that her real name is Ida and her Jewish parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation. This revelation triggers a heart-wrenching journey into the countryside, to the family house and into the secrets of the repressed past, evoking the haunting legacy of the Holocaust and the realities of postwar Communism."
There are no Nazis and there isn't a concentration camp. There isn't a yellow Star of David. There are a lot of images of the Holocaust that Ida never touches upon. It's a different type of holocaust film. It's a film that lets the youthful eyes of Ida tell the story. There are moments of silence and stillness. It's a film that on paper must have scared people away. How do you tell this story? Well you just let these two ladies meet and let them find the truth. Before we jump into Ida. I'd like to talk about Wanda, played by Agneta Kulesza.
We first meet Wanda in her place of work, a courtroom. She is a judge. She is an unhappy judge. She is an unhappy person. Out of the grey mist of her unhappy past comes this young girl. A god-fearing nun who has no clue that she is of the chosen people. Wanda is also Jewish. She is not the type of person to call herself chosen. Instead Wanda is self-destructive and acts without real emotions. She judges with an icy stare. She drinks and eats with a scowl. She even fucks coldly. She's a drunk. She's a whore. She's a judge. I keep harping on her job because her actions seem calculated, pre-thought, totally aware of the realities she is giving to Anna/Ida. She drops her world to help this girl find out the truth. Drives her to their old farm. A scenic drive that allows the film's wonderful cinematography to carry you through Pawel's visions of "home". This film marks his return home to Poland. It seems to be his judgement on the troubling history of the generation before him. We may not see a Nazi around, but Wanda sure does know where to find the bad people. They were her neighbors, her friends, and her countrymen. But her biggest confession will blindside you. She has a darker secret. One that makes you think Wanda most have judged every day of her life because of one choice she made long ago. Ida brings back that pain and horror. Agneta's performance as Wanda is extremely subtle and deliberate. She might not be playing the lead, but her own story is just as incredibly dark. These two woman are all that is left of the horrors of what the Holocaust made people do to others.
Agata plays Anna/Ida with an inquisitive eye. She barely speaks in the film. Instead everything about her reactions are in her eyes. The glances here and there are purely magical. She transforms slowly before our eyes and her journey back into the cold convent would make Wanda proud. At any moment she could have just left. She could have returned to the convent and forgotten about Wanda and the Lebenstein family. Instead she follows Wanda everywhere, not because she wants to but because she has to. She doesn't like her Aunt. She judges her aunt. She judges a lot of people she meets outside of the comfort of her secluded nun world. And yet she keeps following. Back to the farm where the Lebenstein's lived. Back to the place where they are buried. Back to her real truth. But its what she does after this that makes her amazing. She lives up to her Aunt's cries to try and "live" life before taking vows to lose that life. As you see in the end of the trailer she takes down her hair, she unravels herself so she can find herself. Its a very cerebral performance from a young actor. She carries all of that emotion through mostly her piercing eyes that have so many questions.
Two amazing performances in Ida. But that is just a bit of why you need to see this film.
I mentioned the beautiful cinematography work on the film. Directors of Photography: Lukasz Zal & Ryszard Lenczewski have given us a Black & White gem that takes us through the snowy world of 1960s Poland. It's gray and cold. It's bleak and only recently awakend from a terrible death of the last few decades of war. It's a place destroyed and barely surviving. And yet there are moments of pure beauty. Even moments of hope for the future. The dance hall sequences showcase the young people of the town. They show them still living on in the modern world. I couldn't help but think of The Beatles playing in the Cavern when we see the musical performances in the film. Its the image of underground "bunker" now turned into happening lively music joint. The echoes of post World War Europe. The DPs capture this amazing irony to modern Europe. The way century old landscape has been bombed away physically and emotionally to the people in the towns. There is a scene where Wanda and Ida interrorgate the old farmer where the Lebensteins lived. That farmer is an old dying man in a old age home. Wanda takes Ida to him first. As you see in the trailer, she wants to know where the bodies are buried. The old man simply averts his eyes away from Wanda and Ida. That slow knowing eye roll is both an acknowledgment of terrible horrors as well as a sign of complete give-up. That old man knows and all he can do is look away. Can't we all just look away. It's not an especially beautiful scene. But the way in which the DPs capture the emotion in the eyes is so haunting and eye-opening.
Pawel and his tremendous team takes us all the way to the grave where the Lebensteins are buried. Now the amazing part is tha thist sequence in the film isn't that horrific, far from it. It's a moment where Wanda falls to her knees and just breaks. She doesn't cry hysterically, she just looks broken and defeated. Ida is quiet like usual and she just takes it all in. It's a scene that most filmmakers would amp up, but Pawel isn't going for that type of fake emotion. Rather these ladies just move on away from the horror. Wanda has taken Ida on the journey of truth and now she is done. They just up and leave. The next 30 minutes of the movie are what will truly hit your heart hard. We see Wanda's demise and Ida's awakening.
It's not a film about the holocaust but rather a film about the growth of women. If there is one thing gained from the World Wars at the beginning of the 20th century it's that woman rose up. The men were dead in the fields and so someone had to pickup the damn pieces. Someone had to move on from all the horror. This movie isn't a feminist cry. But the powerful transformations of these two actresses is completely a cry for the amazing qualities only women possess. Wanda's cold fucking from earlier may have showcased her whore nature. But I think rather it shows her freedom. She can do as she wishes. It's something she tries to preach to Ida. But it's not until her last act of freedom that Ida finally gets that to take vows you most have done something in life. The story becomes about this young girl's journey into becoming a woman. Granted a woman locked away into the dull hard life of being a nun, nonetheless a strong woman. It's ironic to be shown a young woman being awakened to the truth only to go back to that secluded haven. But she's has transformed. Wanda made that certain by taking her on this journey.
Composer Kristian Eidnes Andersen has created a depth-filled masterwork in Ida. With two quiet stoic woman as your lead it's the music that carries the emotion. It thumps along like a train chugging to it's end destination. It helps engulf you when Ida and Wanda have reached a moment of importance along their journey. The pacing of the music keeps you full attaintive to the slowly paced plot. It's a perfect complimentary work of music as it overpowers at the right moments and remains almost invisible when needed. The trailer is a heightened version of the film, but it's that ebb and flow that works rather well in the film.
I know I've basically called the best film of the year a Black & White slow film with less dialogue and more music. But it's that bold nature to tell a slow moving tale without the substance of color and rather the cold bleakness of Black & White that makes this a real masterpiece. The film just begins to embody you. At the end of the film I had a to take a big breath. I literally was so paralized by the story I couldn't breath. This was all from a laptop screen. I can't imagine the power in a theater with surround sound perfectly tuning into Anderson's terrific score. I haven't felt so strongly from a film in a while and I didn't even see it on the big screen. I hope that point sinks in. It's the most haunting movie of the year on even a freaking laptop. The film has a way of imprinting itself onto you.