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The Haunting Oscar Contender “Ida”

Music Box Films

Matthew Becklo - published on 01/29/15 - updated on 09/11/17

Hailed as "spiritual classic" and "masterpiece"

Nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography at this year’s Oscars, Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is being hailed as a masterpiece – and it’s available to stream now on Netflix.

In an era where freewheeling CGI, frenetic handhelds, and mindnumbing action is the norm, Pawlikowski employs a stark minimalism that instantly sets it apart; from the old fashioned aspect ratio to the sparse, picturesque black and white shots evocative of Robert Bresson, Pawlikowski slows us down to focus on the human subject in its quest for identity. Still, at a running time of just 82-minutes, the experience is clearly meant to pack a punch.

“The real inspiration for how this film looks was my impatience with cinema, where the vein of cinema is going,” Pawlikowski has said. “I wanted to make an anti-cinema film where there are no pointless camera moves, no pointless close-ups. I’m not emotionally excited by the power of cinema’s tricks anymore.” Instead, he very clearly wants to return film to the heart of storytelling, homo viator, the human person in transit, undergoing a kind of movement from the finite to the infinite.

The focus of the story is Anna, a young novitiate instructed to meet her only living relative, a hard-drinking aunt and former Stalinist prosecutor nicknamed “Red Wanda” who pulls Anna into an unexpected quest of self-discovery. Anna, Wanda informs her, is really Ida Lebenstein, a Jewish girl who was orphaned after her parents were brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances decades earlier at the height of the Nazi regime’s rise to power, and the two set out together to find out where and how.

The journey proves life-altering for both women, who are set against each other in almost every way imaginable. Ida is young, innocent, artistic, and faith-filled; her aunt is aging, cynical, left-brained, and agnostic. Ida embodies the hopeful future of Poland, the John Paul II generation, while Wanda embodies its dark political past. At every turn, Ida’s piety is cause for mockery from her aunt. When Ida expresses an interest in going to her parents’ resting place, she sneers: “What if you go there and discover there is no God?” At the same time, Ida prays fervently, counsels Wanda to slow down on her drinking, and instructs her with prudence to go here or to stay there. Wanda plays her part, and Ida plays hers.

Yet, each woman is clearly shaken by the sheer otherness of their counterpart. Wanda marvels at the fact that Ida hides her hair under her habit, drunkenly pondering the superficial, indoctrinated piety – or is it eternal mystery? – of Ida, and what she means to the history of the Lebenstein family tree in Poland. She is haunted by her troubled past, and Ida is the ghost sent to stir it all back up. Meanwhile, Ida – whose saintly eyes, like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, bear the mark of a nobility and constancy – is a woman troubled by an uncertain future. Is her sheltered life an escape that was forced on her by accident? Is Wanda’s sensuous life true life? This question gradually takes hold, and she is more and more allured by the worldly indulgence of her aunt. She wants to experience the world, and her nightly prayers devolve into the spiritual hesitancy of Augustine: “Lord, make me chaste…but not yet!”

Unearthing this duality between the two woman in both substance and style is Pawlikowski’s master stroke, and precisely what earned him two Oscar nods. The film strikes a remarkable balance between silence and speech, music and clamor, contemplation and action, all of it churning back and forth in perfect rhythm, steadily drawing out the inner tension of these two opposed characters searching for themselves in each other.

But the film is not, for all that, dualistic. Pawlikowski usually situates his subjects in the lower third of the frame, leaving great spaces of ceiling and sky above them – as if to signify the presence of a higher reality, something they’re looking for, or turning from, at every step. The eyes of God are forever on them, enveloping them, looking into their hearts; and Ida’s return of the gaze in the film’s final frames is the stuff spiritual classics are made of.

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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