The 1944 D-Day invasion may continue to impress us largely due to the sheer scope of the project: The most immense and technically advanced seaborn invasion force ever assembled makes a final assault on the greatest state-sponsored evil that humankind has known. It is probably right that we use such bombastic terms to describe events that stagger us, even today, in their scale, daring and drama — but the best films about the events of the Second World War are frequently ones that do the opposite. Small, individually-scaled dramas can encapsulate the tragedy, inhumanity and evil of the war more effectively and efficiently than epic war films ever can. Pawel Pawlikowski reminds us of this fact beautifully and powerfully in his latest film, Ida, opening at FilmScene on June 20.
The story, like the imagery in Pawlikowski’s movie, is sparse: In early 1960s Poland, Anna, a young nun who is about to take her vows into cloistered life forever, is ordered by the Mother Superior to make a final visit to her only living relative, Wanda Gruz, who is a once-ascendant but still-powerful judge within the Communist party-run court system of post-war Poland. “Red Wanda” — played by the amazing Agata Kulesza — very quickly and impatiently tells Anna two facts that will change her life forever: She is actually a Jew named Ida, and her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation. “This,” Wanda tersely informs the stunned novitiate, “concludes our little family reunion.”
But, of course, it doesn’t. The remainder of the film traces the journey of this mostly incompatible pair into the Polish countryside to discover the truth about the dark history that binds their pasts together. While urban life in this film represents predictability and absolute obedience to the party-state, the Polish countryside is still unpredictable, foreign and protective of its dark secrets.
It is also gorgeously photographed by Pawlikowski’s cinematographer, Ryszard Lenczewski, this time assisted by Lukasz Zal. His imagery in this film is really a character unto itself and will perhaps be the most striking thing that viewers take away: Every scene performs the work of a carefully-composed photograph, with only the essential elements. Lenczewski’s scenes of urbanity and street life are cut from Henri Cartier-Bresson (right down to the wet pavements and spiral staircases); while scenes of the muddy, hard-bitten countryside are bleaker, wider and remind us of Walker Evans, with their shabby buildings and low horizon lines. Shot entirely in black and white, there is very little black or white, but rather more shades of grey than in the E. L. James trilogy. This creates an inescapably austere but still-nuanced look toward the landscape (especially the sky) and sets a heavier tone for the story.
What makes Pawlikowski’s war story compelling is that it is not really about the war, but instead about how the specific horror that both characters are seeking to uncover tests their separate faiths so profoundly: Ida’s Christianity and the party loyalties of her aunt Wanda. Pawlikowski wants to ask if any belief system can hold up in the face of discoveries about the personal evil that individuals are willing to inflict on others just because historical context gives them the opportunity.
At the very start of their journey, Wanda questions her niece’s resolve about her plan to visit the village where her parents lived during that war. “What if you go there,” she asks, “and find that there is no god?”
By the film’s end, the characters have reached different conclusions about this question, and Pawlikowski’s story ends on a somewhat hopeful note. Along the way, Pawlikowski gives us much room for doubt, both about the individual actions of our countrymen during wartime and about how we go earnestly to try to uncover their results.
No Polish film has ever won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, his first in his native language, will surely be in that discussion come February.