Friday, May 23, 2014


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

I used to work in Williamsburg, which is adjacent to Greenpoint - about as far north as you can get in Brooklyn before you hit Queens. Greenpoint is - or perhaps was is more accurate - a Polish neighborhood. Actually, I suppose you can still say "is" because plenty of Polish people and businesses still thrive there, so it hasn't completely gentrified yet.

Manhattan Avenue is the main drag. You'll see lots of storefronts with Polish names on the signs and items: bakeries, cafes, restaurants, markets, all mixed in with Dunkin Donuts and 7-11 and McDonald's and Starbucks. There's a deli I'd go to before work in the morning, right after I got off the train, where I'd get a makeshift breakfast of orange juice and a croissant. And since my workday began at seven, I came to rely on it a lot.

I can't say I know a great deal about Poland outside of the context of World War 2. I'd hear Polish jokes as a kid without knowing why Poles were made fun of. I knew a Polish-American girl in college. That's about it. So watching this movie Ida was quite illuminating. (I'm pretty sure I've seen other Polish movies before, but not many, and I can't think of any right now.)

Seeing Ida was a somewhat impulsive decision. I saw the trailer when I went to see Belle and was intrigued - then I remembered where I had read about it before. Anne Thompson wrote a post on ten indie movies she recommended for the summer and this was one of them, but I had forgotten what she had said about it. Then I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes and saw that it had a 96% fresh rating. Right then and there I decided to see it without knowing anything about it. Every once in awhile you have to take a chance on a movie...

...and am I glad I did. Ida is about a young nun, orphaned as a child and about to take her vows, who learns about her dead parents (who were actually Jewish) from her aunt Wanda, her only living relative, and the two of them go on a search to find out how they died and where they're buried. It's black and white, and it's set in the 60s, during the period when Poland was a communist country.

There's an odd visual choice made here: much of the film is shot with the characters forced down to the bottom of the screen, leaving wide expanses of space dominating the frame. I've never seen anything quite like this before (sorta like The King's Speech, but more extreme), and after awhile I found I could feel this composition like a weight bearing down on the characters. That's strange, isn't it - how the position of the camera can have a physical impact on you? Fortunately, whoever put in subtitles was smart enough to place them at or near the top of the frame when necessary. 

I suppose it could be a metaphor for some authoritative force pressing down on the characters, whether it's the Communist government, or God, or even history - Ida's, and Wanda's, and Poland's. Wanda in particular is haunted by the weight of her past. I'm just stabbing in the dark here - you'd think an artist would have a better handle on visual interpretation - but it seems obvious to me that this was a conscious choice by director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski. In The King's Speech, I recall thinking that the odd compositions called more attention to themselves than they should, but then, they were used more sparingly than in Ida.

Regardless, I've never seen a movie that gave off such a strong sensation of physical weight before. It's not often that I get such a synaesthetic experience from a movie. Also, the print I saw had a television-like aspect ratio, almost squarish - even though the images I've included here don't reflect that.

As you would imagine from a nun character, Ida is pious and devout. Wanda is much more secular and worldly. In a key scene about halfway through, when Wanda thinks Ida's being overly judgmental of her ways, Wanda tells her that living in a Catholic orphanage all her life has sheltered her from the world, and since Jesus wasn't afraid to engage the world on its own terms, neither should she. 

This conversation proves important in a decision Ida makes at the very end of the story, and though it didn't change how I felt about the movie as a whole, it's still a decision I wish she hadn't made. Growing up within a strict faith, you never know as much about the world as you should, because you're sheltered by your parents (or guardians, in this case) and programmed to believe what they say - and because you're only a kid, they can tell you ANYTHING, and you will believe it. That's insidious. Enlightened parents would let a child decide for themselves what they wanna believe - though I'll grant that this probably isn't easy for a parent to do. This doesn't factor heavily into the movie; it's just something that it made me think of.

Ida is remarkably minimalist as well. The dialogue is direct and lean, and there are dialogue-free stretches where the imagery carries the story and deepens the characters as well. Pawilkowski knows when to enter and leave a scene, and just how much to give the audience. Not enough filmmakers know how to do that. Combined with the black & white cinematography, the overall effect is mesmerizing.

Like I said, seeing Ida was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, and after it was over, I wished I hadn't been in such a rush to see it. I thought that this was the kind of movie that Vija or Andi would really dig, but I never gave any thought to telling them about it. Part of the reason why was because there were some movies I wanted to see this spring, but missed because they stayed in theaters for such a short time. And while I would gladly see Ida a second time, I'm hesitant to spend what limited money I have on a second viewing, especially if it's in the city, where I'd pay $12-14 instead of the $8 I spent yesterday at the Kew Gardens (have I said lately how much I love the Kew Gardens?).

On a different note: this is another case where knowing nothing about the movie led to being pleasantly surprised - and I knew even less about Ida than about Draft Day. Still, this isn't something I don't think I would choose to do all that often, even though in this case, I had the word of a critic I know and trust, Anne Thompson, to help me decide. And I didn't even remember what she said! I just knew she recommended it, as did 96% of professional film critics.

Like I said, every now and then you gotta take a chance on a movie.


  1. It sounds as if the experience surrounding your viewing along with the film itself will make this one of the most memorable movies of the year.

  2. I think so. It helped that it took me by surprise. It also helped that it had such a distinctive look and mood that served the story. I liked it a whole lot.


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