Aside from special occasions organized by significant segments of the community like the local Polish film festival or the Jewish film festival, few motion pictures from Poland play in theaters in this country, which makes the release of the new movie "Ida" an unusual and welcome event. It also should make audiences grateful all over again for institutions like The Little Theatre.
The movie creates a distinct contrast with the Academy Award winner for best foreign film, "La Grande Bellezza" ("The Great Beauty"), possibly suggesting some of the differences in the national characters of Italy and Poland. A lush, brilliantly colored work, "La Grande Bellezza" absolutely celebrates the city of Rome, the glittering surfaces of contemporary life, and even the decadent ambience of its sophisticated upper class.
A dark, somber work shot in black and white, "Ida," on the other hand, shows something of the bleak circumstances of Poland in the 1960's, laboring under the yoke of totalitarianism and haunted by memories of some of its citizens' participation in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Unlike most European films, including "La Grande Bellezza," which often depend heavily on a lot of talk, "Ida" moves through silences, employing several series of virtually still images to create its meaning and emotion.
The picture opens in a convent where several young novices prepare for their final vows. The Mother Superior instructs one of them, Anna (AgataTrzebuchowska), to make a final visit to her only living relative, her mother's sister, Wanda (AgataKulesza). A stern judge serving the authorities well -- she boasts of her nickname, "Red Wanda" -- Aunt Wanda calls Anna a Jewish nun. She tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, that the family she never knew was murdered during the war; she summoned her so they can return to her birthplace and find out how her parents died and where their bodies are buried.
The two women embark on a journey to uncover a hidden past and along the way, in a sense, to discover themselves. A drunk and a self-styled slut, Wanda constantly teases and taunts Anna about her faith and her choice to enter the religious order. As determined as her aunt to find the truth about her family, the sweet, lovely Anna endures the remarks in silence, a kind of test of her resolve and her belief.
An experienced prosecutor, Wanda interrogates the people who now live in the family farmhouse, which leads the pair to another town, another witness, a final revelation. When they find the solution to the mystery they seek to solve, the darkness of the past spreads to touch everyone involved, finally creating some unexpected choices and still more tragedy. At the same time, Anna/Ida grows into womanhood, leading her to a destiny both surprising and appropriate.
The movie examines a history that darkens the past of Eastern Europe, a guilt that many, like some of the people in the story, prefer to ignore. Understated like everything else in the picture, even the concrete evidence of its atrocity emerges from a terrible sense of suffering, a pain that affects everyone. The picture confronts not only one small moment in the unimaginable tragedy of the Holocaust but also the question of faith in the world that follows that horror.
Mostly through cinematic technique and the skillful performances of the two principal actors, the director makes his relatively simple story into a true gem of a movie. He mixes the deliberate pace and understatement of even violent action with frequent narrative jumps, reminiscent of the work of the pioneers of the French New Wave. The silences and the purity of his simple images sustain the straightforward movement of the plot and the development of the characters.
In an age of cinematic excess, "Ida" demonstrates how motion pictures can inspire emotion without special effects, loud noises, and spectacular action. The camera often shows an empty frame before a character enters it, sometimes descending a staircase or walking into the scene or occupying only a corner, intensifying the bleak simplicity of its tone. Its minimal dialogue, the empty rural landscapes, the drab little towns, the cheerless rooms, all the visual elements combine to create a small, somber masterpiece.