The summer movie season won’t be at its zenith on May 30, but it will definitely be in high gear. In addition to recent hit releases like The Winter Soldier, Spider Man 2 and Godzilla, two big-budget films — the Disney reboot of Snow White, Maleficent; and Seth McFarlane’s homage to Blazing Saddles, A Million Ways to Die in the West — will be sucking up thousands of screens.
Oh, and there is also a movie, shot in black-and-white and shown with subtitles, about two strangers digging for answers about the Holocaust in the necrotizing post-Stalinist Poland of 1962. Ida provides a brilliant bit of counter-programming. As one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, the film, by Polish director Pawil Pawlikowski, should prove to be just as compelling a monochromatic beacon for moviegoers uninterested in seeing another tentpole in Philadelphia as it has in New York and Los Angeles, where it was released earlier in May.
All of this acclaim and success has taken the 57-year-old Pawlikowski, best known for his 2004 film, My Summer of Love, and 2011’s The Woman in the Fifth, by surprise; in fact, he joked that he thought that making a Polish-language film would be career suicide.
Nevertheless, he explained during a recent phone interview, he needed to make a film in his native land. The longtime resident of London left Warsaw with his family when he was 14. “I wanted to recreate the landscape, the music, the scenes — the visceral memories of a little kid,” he said.
The two main characters populating the Poland of his memory brought to celluloid life are Ida and Wanda. Ida, played by newcomer Agata Trzebchowska, is an 18-year-old novitiate about to take her vows in rural Poland, when the mother superior tells her that she must first visit her only living relative, her Aunt Wanda, played by accomplished Polish actress Agata Kulesza.
In a tense, airless scene, the placidly beautiful, wimpled Ida learns within seconds of meeting Wanda that she is not who she thinks she is, thanks to her aunt’s disdainfully tossed-off “A Jewish nun?”
Ida is actually Anna, who was orphaned when the Polish farmers who were hiding her family murdered her mother —Wanda’s sister — and father and Wanda’s son while Wanda fought the Nazis with the Communist Resistance. Now, two decades later, Wanda is a top judicial official known as “Red Wanda,” who drinks to excess to block out the past, a past that has now come to life before her eyes, garbed in Catholic raiment.
After dismissing Ida and dropping her at the bus station, Wanda returns for her niece, and the two go off on a terribly beautiful road trip, in search of what really happened to their family.
“I had been playing with the idea of a nun who was Jewish for a long time,” the director said. “It was a starting point to explore Polish Jewish identity” as well as Polish Catholicism, which, he said, “is very tribal, very limiting — it has lost its religious core.”
Pawlikowski is uniquely suited to address such flashpoint topics. He was born to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who kept his family history to himself, although Pawlikowski was able to discover that his paternal grandmother died in Auschwitz.
Pawlikowski’s Poland feels and looks like shades of gunmetal and old, dirty snow, prematurely crumbling concrete and wheezing Škodas. The people who inhabit the frames have been literally marginalized: There are precious few close-ups, and many scenes place the characters in the bottom third of the frame, creating a sense of stillness and of just how little control they have over their lives when faced with the enormity of their surroundings.
As the intricately framed mise en scene, captured in luminous greyscale by the cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, indicates, Pawlikowski is a hands-on auteur. He had the film shot in the classic, square “Academy ratio” of 1.37: 1 — 40 percent narrower than the 2.33: 1 ratios onscreen today.
Nowhere does Pawlikowski’s attention to detail manifest itself more effectively than in the film’s soundtrack. If the characters aren’t hearing or making a sound, then there is none. “To me, if the film doesn’t work without music, then I think it’s a failure,” he said. “The way the actors move, the way the light works, the choreography, the dialogue — that is the music of the film.”
As a result, when a piece of music does come into play, it is freighted with significance. A young, handsome jazz saxophonist whom Ida and Wanda give a ride to plays John Coltrane’s “Naima” after his band’s show, and the effect on Ida is palpable. “ ‘Naima’ was a piece through which Ida, who has never heard music, apart from chants and prayers, falls in love with the saxophonist — much more through his music than his physical presence,” Pawlikowski, himself a former musician, explained.
The early ’60s pop the saxophonist’s band plays is exuberantly ragged, a reflection of the times. And the relatively rapid-fire juxtaposition of a Bach chorale, the Internationale and Coltrane’s “Equinox” provide the backbone for the film’s wrenching final minutes.
“The songs were there at the beginning of the script,” Pawlikowski said. “They helped me imagine the scenes and the period. 1961, 1962 — that’s when that heavy Stalinism began to soften. Jazz came in, pop music came in — young people took that little bit of freedom and ran with it.”
Fifty years later, that generation — and the two subsequent ones — has been lining up to see the film. In a slightly relieved, slightly surprised tone, Pawlikowski said that it had been received well, although he had gotten some backlash for not dealing more explicitly with the Holocaust.
Ultimately, he said, people need to understand that Ida is not a straight historical film. “We need to face up to the things we did,” he emphasized. “The other stuff” — like trying to turn the focus of the film onto its lack of German culpability — “is very often just pretext for an ongoing debate.” Still, he said, “in the end, it is better to be debated than to be ignored.”