Front Row at the Movies
For Her Past
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
My mother (whom I’ve known all my life) is not who I thought she was. Recently, my siblings and I discovered that the name on her birth certificate is different than the one we’ve always called her. “I changed it when I went to school,” she shrugged. “I liked this name better.”
In “Ida” -- the new Polish film playing at the Tropic Cinema -- a young woman named Anna is told by her aunt that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her Jewish parents were murdered by the Nazis.
Well, that’s a shocker for a novice nun about to take her vows.
So Anna/Ida (stunningly portrayed by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) puts her religious quest on hold and undertakes another one … traveling with her aunt (Agata Kulesza) to find the graves of her parents.
Before you can go forward, you sometimes have to make peace with your past. Even a new past.
This is Polish-born, but British-trained and Paris-based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s first film made in Poland. The BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker is best known for “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love.”
“Ida” is told “against the only slightly thawed backdrop of rural Poland in 1961.” And it has the distinctive look of films made in the Sixties.
The opening scenes of nuns refurbishing and raising a statue of Jesus has the stark look of black-and-white photographs from a forgotten family album. Each scene is as thoughtfully composed as a still photograph, unblinking and stark, like it was shot with natural light on old Tri-X film. No dazzling camera tracking or moving about or jittery cinéma vérité grab shots.
As Paweł Pawlikowski explains, “The real inspiration for how this film looks was my impatience with cinema … I wanted to make an anti-cinema film where there are no pointless camera moves, no pointless close-ups. I’m not emotionally excited by the power of cinema’s tricks anymore.”
He adds, “When I watch most films, with some exception, I always ask myself: ‘Why is the camera moving? Why is there a close-up now? Why does this have to be handheld now?’ It was a way of purifying, getting rid of habits, and doing something really simply. Looking at a picture, contemplating it, while not really reading the emotional charge.”
Pawlikowski admits that this is a personal film. “My family’s photo albums from that period also influenced me. Not literally restaging them, but just the atmosphere of these photographs. It’s not like they’re great photographs, but there’s something about them that gave me an impulse to do it like this. That’s how I remember that time, through the prism of early childhood memories, and from family albums.”
So he shot the film with no cuts. “Each scene was done mainly from one angle. We didn’t rearrange lights for each scene. This was the ideal shot for this scene, these are the ideal movements of the actors, so they need to coincide and feed off each other, all in one take.”
“Intentional sparseness” is a phrase that has been used to describe Pawlikowski’s technique. And it’s also a good description of the bleak story about a woman’s search for her true identity.
Maybe I’ll send my mother my screener copy of this film to watch. Then I’ll ask her again who she is.