The alarming precision of nuns singing chromatically descending chants.
The hollow, circular depression of earth on the grounds of the convent where a life-size statue of Jesus stands, and where Ida paces restlessly.
The hermetic insularity of these images and sounds are what give “Ida” its incisive narrative force. Despite its circular and deceptively simple storytelling, the film conveys an awesome transformation within its main character Ida, (or Anna, her Christian name), a young novitiate about to take her vows who discovers she is Jewish.
Ida’s story is one of many, a single thread in a web woven from the aftermath of the Holocaust. Despite its historical context, Richard Brody, in his controversial review in The New Yorker, asserts that “Ida” is fraudulent, vague, and distasteful. Mr. Brody argues that because “Ida” is non-specific to any particular event related to Jews and the Holocaust, it sacrifices truth in favor of director Pawel Pawlikowski’s own version of history: “It filters out all supposedly extraneous context to stick not merely to the story but to Pawlikowski historical point…..nothing in the film is a solid thing or an action; everything is an example.” Mr. Brody goes on to call the film “a history lesson in editorial form.” But “Ida’s” vagueness does not make the movie shallow or false; in fact, its ambiguity is what gives the film its haunting demarcations.
Mr. Brody states that many definitive actions are never seen, nor is specific historical context provided. But Pawlikowski conveys the devastating results of those actions. The farmer is not shown digging up the bones of the family he has murdered – Ida’s family. What is shown is Ida’s aunt Wanda kneeling next to the grave while clutching the small skull of her child, before wrapping it absentmindedly in a shawl. Later in the film, Wanda commits suicide by leaping from a window. Pawlikowski does not show her descent, nor the impact – this would be crude. But the sound of her body hitting the ground can be heard, even as the camera remains fixated on the open window.
Ida remains still and poised as she undergoes a series of discoveries and revelations. Often, after a shocking truth is revealed, the camera will linger on the unexpressive planes of her face. Ida’s stoicism is not shallow, but emotionally transparent. Her emotional restraint allows the viewer to use her as a vessel for their own thoughts and reactions. An example of this character-to-viewer transference is a scene late in the film where Ida is eating a meal at the convent. Like most activities, the meal is shrouded in reverent silence; the only sound that is heard is the scrape of utensils against dishes. Suddenly, a choked, almost inaudible giggle escapes Ida’s throat. The origins of her laughter could be a number of things, ranging from sensual excitement to a cynical reaction to the horror and absurdity of her recent discoveries. It is an exhilarating moment, and the viewer empathizes with the possibilities of Ida’s array of emotions: pleasure, gallows humor, shame. The cause of this outburst remains unknown; the viewer can only try to imagine the thoughts running through her head.
Because Pawlikowski does not disclose the details of Ida’s family history, and because the film isn’t overridden with overt references to the Holocaust or explanatory flashbacks, (I don’t recall the words “concentration camp” and “Nazi” ever being uttered) the viewer is left to construct their own lessons from Ida’s terrible circumstance. And of course the task is difficult – impossible, even. So instead of feeding us the simple logic of cause and effect, problem and resolution, we are left – forced, even– to ruminate. And the thoughts that materialize in our own heads can be more vivid and disturbing than anything a movie screen, or perhaps even history, can show us.
“Ida” / Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski / Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza / 1 hour, 20 minutes / Rated PG-13
Vanessa Graniello is the Press Manager & Dramaturg for The Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center in Patchogue, NY. Her film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. You can find this review and many others on her blog, stickyourthumbselsewhere.com