Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski. Black and White. 12a
Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Paweł Pawlikowski
Filmed in Denmark, Poland Released 2013, Language Polish.
Music by Kristian Eidnes Andersen
Cinematography Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida Lebenstein / Siostra Anna
Agata Kulesza as Wanda Gruz / (ciotka) Aunt Anny
Joanna Kulig as a singer
Dawid Ogrodnik as saksofonista Lis
Adam Szyszkowski as Feliks Skiba
Jerzy Trela as Szymon Skiba
Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she is advised to visit her Aunt Wanda an odd fish, who is a Magistrate formerly of higher office who is us widowed and seeks uncomplicated friendship but who has been or wasn’t up to adopting her sisters child and now she responds to a call by the Covenant as Ida is about to decide on her future.
Meeting her Aunt comes with a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation.
This is a journey from child to woman as a rite of passage of an orphan whose childhood began in war torn Poland and her growth into the woman whose character is internalized and is full of history never opened to her. The journey is archaic and modern with a clash of intrinsic values occupying the new Poland and Ida alike.
The step back both in time and to another form of Cinema has many moments of brilliance and other times mild censure. The censure is mostly the sometimes over reliance on image when for example close ups take it on another course, having been as a viewer, immersed to that point in the sparseness of the space filled voids of interiors and exteriors. It upset the subtlety of space and the narrative occasionally.
It is simply a beautiful film despite the minor irritations and perhaps because the subject is a face of Polish history without the complexities of managed versions of history as has been prevalent ever since the Holocaust emerged.
Single stories are well delivered as here are so fundamentally important as an antidote to the propaganda.
A journey ‘Through the Narrow Gate’.
This was the title of a Karen Armstrong book as she proceeded to take her vows and enter a convent aged seventeen She came from a Worcestershire family full of life. For a calling that takes as a requirement of giving up hope in their body for Christ. To remove their own feelings, we observe, sit watching these Nuns sit as they eat and commune in the dining hall at the start of the film; these Nuns who have sacrificed for God another life.
Their austere surroundings and daily rituals and consumption of the fruits of the earth at the table provide this film with the Levantine societal structure, like an extraordinary behemoth animal living among the other human beings and residing in the plain Convent while worshiping in the idolatry of the public spaces of the Churches.
There is little wonder this film, Ida, has enormous beauty. It has the revered beauty of Ida herself. A young spare thin girl with a magnetic countenance of beauty. Pawel found Anna in a cafe. He found the story in reflecting on his childhood. the period when Poland was recovering from Stalinism.
To Poland the world was now a newly opened book and the imagination stretched in all directions not least in all the art forms.
He directs as though he cannot get away from the Vermeer paintings of mirrored rooms, real earrings, draped beds and florid glass.
Bewitching, displacing, functional, beguiling, it is all those and more.
This was the pared simplicity of the Convent life. It has the skill of a master film maker assuredly, in his first embarkation of a narrative set in his homeland, a depiction of that society, that intercourse with life following the war and the preparedness to be shocked while carrying on with the visceral life at their fingertips. He avoids a lesson in history. The film despite this outlines this expertly and acutely takes us there.
For us unknowing of the minutiae we are given memory held in the body of this generation.
I use the metaphors of Levantine and Behemoth as the clumps of Churches in Eastern Europe, Russia and modern Europe sit in the landscape as huge regarding animalistic symbols. Even in Northern Ireland and throughout rural Ireland the presence of Religion is not only the invisible cloak of ancestors but the large dominant presence in flat landscapes and hills of Churches. The Convent is a feature you would not miss.
Ida cuts into this reality. The shock is also it is so modern and commanding, being set in a seldom apparent Poland of the sixties and perhaps the absence of colour enhances this. A culturally curious dissonance.
Of its very austere tableau it creates the light and air of the breathing living space with, the form of the Covent like a regal moth with folded wings, as the roof over their lives. The only acceptance Ida will require is the acceptance of these Nuns and as her future companions.
That journey is the the same here as Ida is sent from an orphanage where she has grown up to find her last remaining relative, an Aunt Wanda who is a former Communist Prosecutor and was disregarding initially of the dilemma faced by Ida. Choices are self made. The purpose of consulting with her is to place her own life in context and it appears quickly that we can understand she has a Jewish background and the Holocaust features prominently in her family life.
The theme of the film is the basis of choice in the eyes of the startlingly filmatic, thin features of the aqua line face and stillness of character which Agata Trzebuchowska portrays vivaciously. Her sexuality is escaping her body in stray invisible sensual gestures and with an adult gravitas, she knowing her duty within is to allow this element of self to surface to proliferate, propagate, generate amongst the people of this new world, that which she encounters where it surfaces, emerging. To follow her every move seems natural as the intriguing curiosity of the viewer and the viewed is where the art falls on each.
This discovery for us is through the visual and body language of Ida in this life and when the road trip happens upon the rhythms of a dance – on the road a hitchhiker is picked up – and turn trance like with a trio of the Aunt, the hitchhiker, and Ida all conscious of her beauty and entrancing bloom.
The scene into the city is important as there now is a another human being whose easy nature Wanda nourishes in the experiment of triggering notions in Ida of herself. It lasts only a minute or two but it is essentially there, gently story telling. The gift of the film is in these small magic moments.
It is so heartfelt also when a simple act of Ida and Aunt Anny sitting relaxed on a sofa sees them connect softly over the very act of caressing memory.
It is such a broad gesture in a tiny filmic simplicity it truly relates as nothing less than truth. That and the fact the are seeing the people gone.
The hitchhiker gives a relevance to this newly encountered world where other forms of love are found.
All life which seems so much full to the top with strange interactions and the happenstance, perchance radial whirlwind which heads of in unexpected directions and is the normal life of all outside the Convent.
4:3 Top heavy Lower burden
4:3 is the Art house boxed like screen compact used. It is the frame which draws you into a room like observance and claustrophobic presence even in the Polish forest.
The frame very seldom moves. This is not intrusive as we tend to accept the story as if we are looking through Pawels eyes into album of pictures which he them animates for us, shaking the pages, the leaves to reveal another part of the story. The implement the profound simplicity of a film well made and of gathering wisdom.
The black and white is not only the religious contrast of God of the light and the human of the darkness, it assembles contrasts across the frame and pronounces the fabric of the buildings, furniture, landscape and the air sitting over tables and drawn through windows, through trees and along cloisters. Very deliberately the repetitive theme of a person occupying, on many occasions, only the lower third of a frame builds a heaviness laden with the Poland under their feet.
This is a land, so wonderful, yet hiding destruction of lives and pushing the past into the faces and memories with relentless haste. A continual reckoning. Something we are so aware of, the refusal of the past to retreat.
Dave Duggans words ‘ The dead abound the dead abound, How do we keep them in the ground?’.
When Pawel decides to place a character in the top of a frame and talk down to another lower and whose face is close conveying the reaction to the spare dialogue he equips you with an imagined heightened realism. The top of stairs in the Hotel where they take time to discover the past is often used.
Of the significance of these little moments of the higher spirit seen in the elevated person and the person beneath we/I may dwell too much.
Inwardly the film may indeed be looking for answers but on the surface it plays out the harsh wider reality of connivance, of treacherous endeavor and the ultimate failures of humankind into which Ida is craning her beautiful delicate neck to discern where her future lies and how it, this, that, all, everything becomes a real proposition to discover.
War and Hurt
In war everyone gets hurt. The victim and the victor are never the same and they live afterwards with reconciliation happening in each and every cell. Agata Kulesza is a harrowing beauty with a great tragedy of her own which is immeasurable.
The fact is her Aunt is embroiled in the litany of vulgarities of war presiding over a conquest seeking righteousness, new faith in justice, after the new dawn when fresh souls are born to become new victims of war. Truth is the elders choice, to find it where before it never was clear. The mustiness of that preference John Newman has of a veil being our foil is lifted; that veil which kept our fear of others less apparent than was actually the case.
The violence an ever present being.
It is out there and Wanda is intent on delivering as much truth again as she feels ready to give to Ida. Through the lanes, along the roads, Wanda drives a very old car which is her very own rust bucket and is cast as another character I feel as it points to this being a road movie to some true extent.
Wanda is also framed gorgeously in the cars windscreen and in the role of the person in the driving seat of the film. In the cars seat she is comfortable as it hugs her and she has a coy relationship, almost Cronenberg like a gear shift or two down. Another fascinating relationship usually with a cigarette in hand or something else.
There is a lovely old cinema; the film has me thinking of earlier times. I never was a light blue (I wish) no matter how much a difference that might have made of me but I spent many a weekend in Cambridge and loved the old cinema which I hope is still there and relatively unchanged.
Apparently Wiggenstien had a habit of going to the Cinema a lot when he was in Cambridge and he took with him buttered toast to eat during the film. That must have been interesting for him and those around him. Consumables never really caught on with me in the cinema but it apparently is a requirement even in the esteemed echelons of philosophical critique or was he hopeful not to be taken by the escapism Cinema provides.
If you want a great depiction of Cambridge in a time post Darwin then look out for Period Piece by Gwen Raverat if you haven’t come across it. She illustrates it showing the house in Cambridge the Darwin’s of whom she is but one grew up. It not only tells the story of her family and her own life and relationship with Cambridge growing up but it puts neatly into context another viewpoint on Darwinism and its progenitor if that is the right plume. Her own illustrations and freestyle writing made the book when it was first published a very good seller with this ingenious story telling of a prominent family life. Publishers decried the fact Charles Darwin wrote in a dry style but famously and irredeemably the basis of scientific expansion.
This is a very human tale and it posits the mystery of God alongside our mysterious world and the sacrifices made. The events are seemingly random and immense yet the fragile human appears as strong as a stalk of living growing corn in the field. As the corn it is cut down and rendered into something other.
The beautiful playing by all involved, the principles never fail to give the best of the story gives this film an almighty puch. It is vivid and surreal watching this near history rand the viewer is left with another film which will last long in the memory.
1 October 2014
On at QFT from Friday 10th of October and through to Thursday 16th October 2014