A problem like "Ida"

         A few days ago, I watched the Polish-Danish film “Ida” (2013) on Netflix and I couldn't understand why revered critics were adding it to their best-of-the-year lists. “Ida” has the two most important markers of a prestige film on its way to the Oscars: the film is in black and white, and it focuses on survivors of the Holocaust in Communist Poland. Fitting to the time period, the mood is staid and minimalist, to the extreme.

            “Hell no was ‘Ida’ the best movie of the year. It put me in a comatose state,” my younger sister said with vehemence. For the record, my sister and I both watch foreign and “serious” films on a regular basis (some of our favorites include “Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Melancholia,” “The Hunt,” and “A Separation”) because our parents (also anti-"Ida") raised us on a steady diet of Satyajit Ray, Roman Polanski, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, and Alfred Hitchcock.

            Eighty minutes in duration, the film isn’t lengthy or slow-moving exactly. Anemic would be a better adjective. Warning: spoilers ahead as I elaborate on why I didn’t hate “Ida,” even if I would never re-watch it or recommend it to anyone ever.

            Anna, the main character of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film, is a pious, pale young woman and played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska. The heroine grew up in a Catholic convent, and is on the brink of taking her vows to become a full-fledged nun. Anna does not speak unless she is spoken to, making her the polar opposite of that other nun who escaped the Nazis, the curious and vibrant Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Like Julie Andrew’s Maria, Anna is ordered to give the outside world a chance before she marries Jesus Christ. Anna's external connection is to her aunt, who has never visited the girl in the convent. The trip is undertaken with the same obligatory attitude Anna may have about doing laundry or any other chore. It’s a call for celebration though for the viewer, as the introduction of a new face that is not a blank mask is enough to spark some much-needed narrative tension.

            Aunt Wanda is played by Agata Kulesza, who delivers a caustic performance that should pile her living room mantle high with trophies and plaques. Wanda couldn't care less about conventions, let alone small talk, and one can instantly feel that this is a woman who, due to her caustic humor and political ideology, has a zero tolerance policy towards religion and supercilious morality. Wanda’s debut is in her kitchen, where she’s standing and smoking a cigarette (did you think she would be flipping pancakes for her guest?), while a nondescript man in her bedroom puts on his clothes and leaves.

            “They didn’t tell you who I am? What I do?” Wanda condescendingly asks her pure niece, who appears to have wandered into the home of a prostitute, which wouldn’t be surprising in a movie coming from Europe. Anna remains composed. Her equanimity in her sole living relative’s home is deeply felt, as if to say that she is willing to endure anything in the outside world because she knows that ultimately, it’s all temporary- Anna doesn't have an alternative to the church.

            Anna’s point of view is upended when Wanda reveals that Anna is actually Jewish. You can see, despite the black and white wash, blood drain from Anna’s face when she sees a photo of herself as a baby, with her parents and a small boy who Wanda says is not Anna’s brother. Ida Lebenstein is Anna's birth name. God works in mysterious ways, so Anna does not object.

            Wanda then swiftly declares the family reunion to be over because she has to go to work- as a judge. I thought this was pretty cool, how elite Wanda was in comparison to my first impression of her. Her nickname Red Wanda was earned when she worked as a prosecutor and sent enemies of the Communist state to their deaths. Red Wanda's ruthlessness begs the question: is a dogmatic killer lawyer honestly more respectable than a harmless call girl?

            Wanda has a change of heart a few hours after her brusque goodbye to Anna, and she brings her niece back home to stay for a couple of days. Fiercely independent, Wanda is actually quite lonely and sociable, and she occupies her downtime with drinking and men. Ida's arrival provides a positive influence. The pair resolves to travel to the rural Polish town Piaski, where Anna’s parents should be buried.

            The road-trip to Piaski is an eventful one, packed with hiccups and plot devices that are executed tastefully as to avoid resembling hijinks in an American blockbuster. Wanda drunkenly crashes her car into a ditch- the car miraculously doesn’t burst into flames and no one is injured. Lis, a cute saxophonist hitchhiker is picked up - coincidentally, his band's next gig is close to Piaski too. Anna and Lis notice each other and act coyly, which is normal flirting and unrelated to the fact that Ida is shrouded from head to toe in a habit.

            Wanda’s steeliness melts away with Anna. She teases Anna if Anna always has to cover her hair, and when her niece uncovers it in their hotel room, Wanda lovingly strokes the strands that remind her of her dead sister’s. Anna dimple's cause Wanda to ponder the possibilities of Anna as a regular girl, one who had boyfriends instead of prayer beads.

            Doubtful of the level of satisfaction in a devotee's life, Wanda queries: “Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?” Anna answers yes, though not ones about carnal relations. Later, Wanda is exasperated by Anna’s prim disinterest in even sitting in a hotel bar. “Come on, you won’t stop being a nun. Your Jesus didn’t hide in a cave with books, but went out into the world.” For what will Anna know of society if all of her information is secondary and thousands of years old?

            The familial thaw Wanda feels with her niece does not extend to a détente with everyone else. Communist to her core, Wanda barks threats at the townspeople in Piaski, telling them straight at their dinner tables that she will ruin their lives- completely feasible, given her status. Anna walks away from these interrogations in clear distaste. She may have grown up sheltered, but she isn't naïve. More than her aunt’s hard drinking and promiscuity, it is Wanda’s selective wickedness that Anna cannot abide. Anna’s tolerance for what the church may consider debauchery and innate aversion to meanness underlines her grasp of the true, spiritual meaning of Christianity.

Their detective work finally produces the location of the countryside home of Anna’s parents, and in it resides the family that sheltered Anna’s family in the forest during the German invasion. The patriarch is made furious by the visit of the two women because he thinks they have come to reclaim their property. Neither Anna nor Wanda are interested in moving back here, particularly since Wanda most likely supported the redistribution of wealth that gave poor families a plot of land and a place to settle. To make an exception here would be a fatal hypocrisy if the government caught wind of it.

            Besides maybe losing his house, the man has other reasons to fear Anna and Wanda; namely, that he killed Anna’s parents and a little boy who is revealed to be Wanda’s child. The man’s elderly father had cared for the Jewish family in the woods, but the son became greedy and killed the Jewish family in order to absorb their home. Anna was spared as she was only a baby, while Wanda’s son, circumcised, could not be transported to an orphanage sans detection.

            In order to preserve the comfort of his brood, the man obliges to escort Anna and Wanda to the graves of the people who had loved them. From the unmarked pit that he has just exhumed (in a scene that recalls Jews who were forced to dig their own graves before they were shot during the Holocaust) he presents the three skulls, one smaller than the others. Wanda breaks down into tears and grabs the skull as though her son may be resurrected. She strokes the scalp, the hair long gone since Wanda had left him with his relatives while she pursued politics and the law. Anna bundles her parents’ skulls into a coat, and, as her one act of retribution, sneaks away the man’s gloves as well.

            After laying the bones to rest in a Jewish cemetery, Anna and Wanda attempt to restart. Anna invites to her vows her aunt, who fondly declines. Watching Anna in the convent again is like witnessing a former captive return to Plato’s Cave. Her mind sharpened, Anna intently observes one girl wash another's chest in the shower room. Anna laughs to herself at an incredibly sedate dinner, a private act of independence not unnoticed by the older nuns. Crafting flower crowns with two enthusiastic ninnies may have once been a pleasure for Anna, who presently looks bored by it all.  Her thoughts drift like smoke, and she relays finally to the head nun that she is not ready to take the next step.  Perhaps she was thinking of her Aunt Wanda, and how unwise it would be make a decision of finality when one is still so transient.

            Wanda is thinking of Anna too. Wanda laments, inebriated: “She has such beautiful hair… but she hides it away.” She still seeks solace in one-night stands, yet she is more depressed than ever. The weight of her maternal abandonment brings her agony to the fore. A bit of the faith and spirituality that made her sneer with superiority could now constitute a welcome salve. This is not a woman who “has it all;” indeed, the film seems to argue that without children and God, Wanda has nothing. Her illustrious career is merely time-pass during the day; what substance does she have at night, when she has to go home? Where Wanda belittled Anna for being so limited and provincial, it is Wanda who has the less enviable existence. Anna gave Wanda love and purpose and absent that last link to her own child, Wanda is reduced to a caricature of a failed feminist. So one day, Wanda gulps back another drink, amps her record player, shrugs on a coat over her nightgown and casually jumps out her window. Her self-defenestration is hilarious because it is filmed from a distance, without warning, and without any fanfare. Left up for debate is if her usual drinking was a symptom or a cause of Wanda's suicide, though there is no question of the weight of Wanda's grief.

            Wanda’s suicide, a sin in the Catholic Church, abandons Anna, again. Whether she is mourning her family or the girl she may have been, Anna takes baby steps in Wanda’s shoes. She returns to Wanda’s apartment, and like a teenager, she sputters through her first cigarette. Alone and embarrassed, she styles herself in a cute dress to complement her soft hair, a sheepish concession to her prettiness. In a wonderful scene, Anna drinks from one of Wanda’s bottles while standing near the window Wanda used to leave forever. The alcohol makes her pirouette herself into a gauzy curtain, and she falls, saved by the floor.

            A primary education cannot be completed without a boy. Anna seeks out Lis the saxophonist, and it turns out that she loves jazz. A quiet slow-dance leads to bed, the initiation into womanhood complete. Their first night together doesn’t count as a one-night stand, though they are hardly acquainted. Lis invites her to accompany his band to their next gig in Gdansk, and the outlines of the usual groupie pillow talk are blurred by the intentions of Anna and Lis, for Anna is insatiably intrigued about the future. Lis offers: “You’ll listen to us play… We’ll walk on the beach… Then we’ll buy a dog… Get married, have children… Get a house… The usual hassles. Life.” These are the final lines spoken in the film, and there are a few ways to interpret them. Lis may have falsely predicted marriage as a ploy for more sex, or he may have been speaking truthfully. Maybe he delineated the trappings of a bourgeois couple because he thought that’s what Anna expected to hear, or because he thought Anna was unfamiliar with the customary trajectory of civilians. Lis manages to sound simultaneously resigned and content about his fate, therefore making him practical. The outcome seems tame enough for Anna to embrace, since her duties as a 20th-century Polish housewife would not alter much from her demands in the convent.

            Lis’s timeline propels Anna to fantastic action. Breathless, invigorated, Anna is last seen power-walking towards the camera, the flaps of her habit’s veil fluttering wildly in the wind. Old Anna is back, but not really. And why? What cemented Anna’s return to the fold? We’ll never know for sure, so let us brainstorm. She may have been bored by the prospect of middle-class drudgery and opted instead to do meaningful work in the name of God. Moreover,  the church and God are constant. People, as evidenced by Anna's history and her adventures, are ephemeral. Other than the nuns, no one else has stayed with Anna for a substantial amount of time. The church protected Anna from the Holocaust when she was an infant, and the church will offer similar shelter and discipline (God willing) against murder, heartbreak, robbery, materialism, hatred, indecisiveness, abandonment, anguish. All the truths Lis omitted when he described life are things Anna grasps better than any world-weary cynic could. When chaos is so pointless and tiring, can you blame a girl for wanting to be comfortable?

            Pawel Pawlikowski wrote in an article for the Guardian about the creation of “Ida” and how rather than strictly adhering to a script packed with rote plotting, filler dialogue, and sentimentality, Pawlikowski filmed scenes on an improvisational basis. If a moment happened to inspire him, such as a woman painting a statue, he inserted it into his movie. Deleted were scenes he later found trite and condescending to the viewer- Pawlikowski is confident people can utilize their own imagination to interpret his stark, static images. Anna likewise follows the beat to her own drum. Ancestry says that Anna should be Jewish, yet she remains a Catholic because it feels natural for her. And I as well do not wish to be caged in; I wrote earlier that I would not recommend “Ida” to anyone, a judgment call that I now think was made in haste. Please see “Ida.” A daydream shaded by revelations and moods may pounce upon you later.