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Jewish Journal

Polish Jew or Catholic Novitiate…or both?

by Tom Tugend

April 30, 2014 | 10:42 am

Agata Trzebuchowska in “Ida.”

Agata Trzebuchowska in “Ida.”

Assuming that movies reflect — and influence — a country’s preoccupations and prejudices, then the legacy of the Holocaust is still haunting Europe.

German and French filmmakers have been at the forefront of this self-examination, courageously probing the sins of their forebears.

In Poland, where for decades both communists and right-wing nationalists have held that all war crimes were committed by Nazis, some powerful movies have dared to assert that Poles, too, were complicit in the killing of Jews. Many other Poles, it must be emphasized, risked and lost their lives hiding and protecting Jews.

Last year’s “Aftermath” and the current “Run Boy Run” examine this dual Polish behavior during the war, but “Ida,” a Polish drama directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is in a category of its own. It is the antithesis of the shoot-’em-up action film, photographed in monochromatic hues. At its center is a two-woman odd couple embarking on the oddest of road trips.

Anna is a young novice nun, about to take her vows as a full member of the order, who is told by her Mother Superior that she must first travel outside the convent to meet her only known relative. The relative turns out to be Wanda, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking middle-aged woman, who identifies herself as Anna’s aunt and opens the conversation with the statement, “So you are a Jewish nun?”

Anna learns that she was born as the Jewish Ida Lebenstein, whose parents and brother were killed by a Polish peasant who took over the family’s home and farm near Lublin.

The film’s action is set in the early 1960s in a Poland ruled by a communist regime, for which the older woman, nicknamed “Red Wanda,” once served as a public prosecutor, pitilessly pursuing “enemies of socialism.” For some unexplained misdemeanors, she has been demoted to magistrate, dealing with petty domestic disputes, without losing her prosecutorial skills.

The two women, however disparate, are united in their determination to find the burial site of Ida’s parents and brother, and they set out for Lublin in Wanda’s car. On the way, they give a ride to a handsome young jazz saxophonist, heading for a gig in a nearby town, who invites the women to the evening’s dance.

Anna/Ida, of course, refuses, while Wanda gets dressed up and, after a quick pickup by a man at the bar, returns to the bedroom she shares with the younger woman, who is still reading her Bible.

“Of course, I am the slut and you are the little saint,” Wanda observes acidly.

The pronouncement turns out not to be quite accurate for either woman, and their character changes are more important to Pawlikowski than the plot line.

“This is a quiet, oblique film … that deals with the paradox of change in one’s lifetime,” he observed in a phone interview from New York, where he was promoting the film. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from “Ida,” and many of his other films, it is that “life is complicated and forgiveness is crucial.”

Pawlikowski returned to his native Poland recently after 35 years of living in Britain, where he has been making documentaries and feature films, including such international hits as “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love.” He said he returned to a country quite changed from the country of his youth and its then-prevalent prejudices. 

“There are still anti-Semitic elements in Poland,” he said, “but, in general, Jewishness is considered hip, Catholic and Jewish Poles are symbiotic, and we feel the absence of large Jewish communities.”

Pawlikowski represents some of this symbiosis in his own background. “I was baptized as a child, but I also know that my paternal grandmother died in Auschwitz,” he said.

The two leading ladies of “Ida” are a study in contrasts, and not only in the roles they play in the film. Agata Kulesza as Wanda is one of her country’s leading actresses, and she brings to her tough, defiant and driven film persona a superb talent and convincing honesty.

Agata Trzebuchowska shares the same first name with her older partner but otherwise is her complete opposite. A college student, she was discovered by a friend of the director in a Warsaw cafe and when offered the acting role wasn’t particularly interested. That was fine with Pawlikowski, who said, “I didn’t want any professional histrionics in that role.”

As Anna/Ida, the young actress shows flashes of underlying sensuousness, but her performance is dominated by a spiritual yearning.

The film’s final scene shows Anna/Ida, wearing a nun’s head covering, walking down a seemingly endless road. “We don’t know whether she will return to the convent,” Pawlikowski said. “We do know that she will continue to seek spiritual fulfillment.”

“Ida” will screen at three Laemmle theaters in May. 

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