Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Recent Watches: Ida (2013)

Every year around Oscar time, I always make an effort to see a few of the Foreign Language film nominations. These films are never written about as much as the English language nominees and, due to being in a different language, never receive much press. As a result of this, I frequently go into one of the nominated films with little idea of what the plot is. This was the case with “Ida.” I knew it was a Polish film, that it was shot in black-and-white, and that it had something to do with nuns and the Holocaust. Great. Sounds delightful. Let’s pop that in on a Thursday night. However, this ignorance on my behalf ended up working in the film’s favor. “Ida” is a film about discovering one’s past. By going in blind, it was a discovery for me too.

Poor Anna is having a rough week. An orphan raised by nuns, and about to take a vow as a nun herself, Anna is instructed by her Mother Superior to seek out her only living relative. This turns out to be her aunt Wanda, a boozy, chain-smoking, promiscuous older woman. Anna immediately discovers that she was born Jewish and is actually named Ida. As a judge in Communist, post-war Poland, Wanda oversaw some atrocities of her own. The two make an unlikely pair, seeking answers to what happened to Anna’s parents and Wanda’s sister.

“Ida” is unlikely to win over any people who think of foreign films as excessively arty and impenetrable. The movie is shot completely in black-and-white. The director makes some interesting stylistic choices. The characters are often placed in the corner of the frame, seeming very small and vulnerable. “Ida” also features no musical score. Long stretches of the film is quiet, with the only music being heard on radios or by performers. These choices grant the film a stark but earthy tone. The story and locations are lived-in and down to earth. This feels less like a movie and more like real life. The simplicity and quiet humanity draws the viewer in, making “Ida’ more involving as it goes on. This underspoken quality eventually allows a touching tone to emerge without feeling cheap or unearned.

“Ida’ is also explicitly about the wages of war and the effect it has on those caught in the middle. The ghost of World War II looms large over the story. Poland in the sixties is a country still recovering from the wounds of the war. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Anna’s birth parents were killed by the Nazis. The exact circumstances of their deaths, and how the aftermath plays out, provides the film with its biggest emotional gut-punch. Like everything else in the film, it’s handled with grace and understated strength. The film doesn’t back away from acknowledging that Poland was responsible for some crimes of its own. What Wanda did during those days weighs on her mind as well. The recovery from guilt is a slow road and one that will take time. By focusing in on a single story, “Ida” presents the atrocities of the past in a way easy for anyone to understand.

“Ida” is also commendable for its tight run time. When so many Oscar-nominated films run upwards of two hours, “Ida” is a concise 83 minutes. What’s interesting is that the film continues after the story’s logical end point. Anna and Wanda discover the fate of their family and put their bones to rest. The filmmakers ask the question of “What happens next?” One of the character’s fate might seem a bit rushed. However, it’s a logical conclusion. “Ida” devotes its last third to Anna’s character development. Earlier in the film, Wanda tells her that she should live a little before taking her vows, or else her “sacrifice is meaningless.” The film handles this development with as graceful a hand as it does everything else. It’s not exploitative, contrived, or silly. Instead, what she does seems natural. Though the film would have been perfectly satisfying as an hour-long vignette, expanding the story to feature length provides a lengthy conclusion, rift with honestly earned feelings.

What most works about the film is its performances. In an odd way, the film is a buddy story, about two people with opposite personalities developing a close friendship. Though potentially trite, the two main performances sell the story. Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna is quiet for most of the run time. The film focuses on her face, her wide, dark eyes often framed by her nun’s habit. Her body language, stiff and solid, shows her character. When she finally cuts loose, it’s as equally cathartic for the audience as it is for her. Agata Kulesza as Wanda spares nicely with Trzebuchowska while making it clear that she really cares for the girl. Kulesza is fiery and passionate while showing a lot of age. She’s lived a hard life, full of regrets. Also notable is Dawid Ogrodnik as the saxophonist that catches Anna’s eye. He’s likable and charming, creating a lot of personality in his brief amount of screen time.

I had no expectations for “Ida” but enjoyed it a lot. The slow pace won’t be for everyone. However, I found the low-key tone, calculated direction, and strong performances to be excellent. The film rightly earned its nomination. Honestly, I would have liked to have seen a nomination for Trzebuchowska or Kulesza but that was likely always a long shot. Patient or adventurous film fans in the mood for a touching but not showy drama should definitely check it out. [8/10]

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