Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
2013/ Poland, Denmark, France, UK
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
In many ways, Pawel Pawlikowski’s fourth feature Ida, set in his native Poland, is like an Eastern European version of Nebraska. Like Alexander Payne’s movie, Ida is a requiem for a faltering older age, curiously capturing extensive landscapes in black and white, telling an engrossing tale which deals in humour and melancholy equally. One difference is that, while Nebraska’s monochrome renders its scenery as lifeless as the Midwest it so wistfully mourns, Ida’s finds a particular beauty in its newly secular wilderness, haunted by the ghosts of devout Christianity. The other is that Pawlikowski’s film interestingly upturns conventions, having its younger protagonist represent the antiquated, and her older counterpart embodying the modern.
Ida, the soon-to-be-ordained nun with the preordained lifestyle, is essentially innocence itself, knowing only the virtues of religion and none of the vices of the outside world. Set in the 1960s, the environment greeting Ida as she ventures to meet her aunt Wanda is one engulfed in postwar aftershock, saturated with western music, promiscuity and lapsed Christians seeking quick redemption. Wanda encapsulates this cynical quasi-wasteland, seemingly on a collision course to an alcoholic or venereal death, spouting smart-arsed rebukes and equipped with a chilling confidence used to destroy anyone impeding her and Ida’s search for their relatives’ burial site.
Despite its road-faring premise, Ida never quite becomes a conventional buddy movie, with Ida and Wanda’s personalities and outlooks being too deeply-rooted and impenetrable for them to truly bond. Instead, they settle for reconciling their differences, which ends up teaching them both aspects about life that create fissures in their ideologies anyway. However, the hedonism-tinged culture that has proliferated outside of Ida’s convent proves more seductive, leading to a subtly alarming instance where she witnesses a performance of John Coltrane’s sensuous Giant Steps highlight “Naima”, catalysing the first moment we see her without her habit. Actress Agata Tzrebuchowksa’s placid facial expressions illustrate Ida as an uncomplicated being initially, but as the perceived decadence of modern Poland begins to tarnish her perfect naivety, she pollutes that visage with the most miniscule of stress lines, difficult to pinpoint but noticeable all the same.
Tiny charms such as these provide Ida with a foundation from which it builds a tale of sheer beauty. After honing his chops as a director of observational documentaries at the BBC, Pawlikowski’s eye for human struggles remains intact, evidently possessing a wisdom that allows him to instil every passing second with undeniable warmth, even in the neglected and forbidding environments that permeate the movie. Harnessing the feel of true authenticity in its 1960s setting, Ida feels paradoxically towering for every moment of its brisk 80-minute duration, but above all, Ida is so touching for being a Polish man’s paean to the tectonic shift in his country’s culture, forced upon it by Nazism and its subsequent loss of direction and identity following the Axis’ rape and pillage of what Pawlikoski asserts as a previously pure and pious nation. This is warm but brutally honest cinema you literally can’t look away from.