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Habit Forming

fm idaFamily, history and religious vows collide in the powerful, intimate Polish drama 'Ida'

Who says size matters? At a mere 80 minutes, the Polish film Ida is a small miracle of economic storytelling, emotional complexity and astonishing scope. Co-written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, it is both an intimate, mostly two-character drama, and an unsparing and unsentimentalized look back on two tumultuous decades of Polish history, as told over the course of a few days in the life of a young woman. It's everything we want a film to be—focused, beautifully composed, surprising, and powerful.

Shot in expressive black and white by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, the film begins within the fortress-like walls of a rural convent. It's about 1962, and Anna (lovely Agata Trzebuchowska), an 18-year-old novice, is an orphan raised in the convent. She has never known anything besides the orderly routines and obedience of convent life; meals are taken in silence, discipline is strict, and the young novitiates regularly prostrate themselves on the stone floor of the chapel before their wooden Christ.

Anna is about to take her vows. But before she can, the Mother Superior tells her she must visit her only remaining relative, an aunt she never knew she had who lives in the city. Anna doesn't want to leave the safety of the convent, but you don't say no to the Mother Superior. So the girl packs her small, plain suitcase and takes the train into another world.

Her Aunt Wanda (a superb Agata Kulesza) is a tough, hard-drinking, middle-aged court judge who sleeps with random men and has little interest in bonding with her niece. But she shows Anna an old photograph of her mother, tells the girl that her birth name was Ida—and drops the bombshell that their family was Jewish. Wanda is ready to send the girl packing again, but she relents, brings Anna back to her apartment from the station, and begins to reveal the history of their family.

It's a harrowing tale, dating back to the Nazi invasion of Poland, and continuing into the severity of the Communist era. But director Pawlikowski reveals it only in small, potent bits, as the two women set off on an impromptu odyssey, first to the farmhouse where Anna's family once lived, and then on a quest to find her parents' unmarked grave. Along the way, their fragile alliance is shattered and reformed, painful secrets are told, and a subtle portrait emerges of the troubled legacy left to a younger generation born out of chaos.

The relationship between these two women keeps us engaged. Anna disapproves of the caustic aunt who can't help goading her about her unquestioning compliance. (On the subject of sex, Wanda cracks, "You should try it, otherwise what kind of sacrifice are these vows of yours?") Yet, they learn to be strong for each other, too, on a shared journey toward truth and knowledge.

As Anna/Ida's story unfolds, Pawlikowski's inventive framing of each scene tells its own story. Inside the convent, Anna's head never occupies more than a small corner at the bottom of the frame under a vast expanse of empty walls, woodwork or ceiling. On their journey, Anna and Wanda are often seen in long shot, small figures in a larger landscape of time and events. (In a hotel, Anna stands at the top of a spiral staircase down to the bar where Western jazz is playing, as if contemplating a descent into hell.) But gradually, Anna moves toward the center of each frame and takes up more of it—growing into her identity, perhaps, or as her consciousness is raised.

This symbolism, along with Pawlikowski's concluding shot, are so open to interpretation, the film is almost interactive. I didn't realize how ambiguous the ending is until I found out my viewing companion had exactly the opposite idea of its meaning. Both interpretations are entirely plausible, and each makes sense in its way. The beauty of Ida is that, by the end, we are so thoroughly haunted by this quiet tale of life, loss and redemption that each viewer is eager to step in and supply the ending we want.


IDA *** 1/2 (out of four) With Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. Written by Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. A Music Box films release. Rated PG-13. 80 minutes. In Polish with English subtitles.

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