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The abyss won't stare back if you're not paying attention - "Ida" (Poland, 2013)

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in 'Ida.'
Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in 'Ida.'Music Box Films

‘Ida’ is now showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday, August 14th.

A few times a year, I encounter films like Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland, 2013), which are so technically accomplished and intelligently conceived that I almost feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t like them. After all, this is a film that I should be sticking up for; my entire raison-d’etre for bothering with film criticism is to tug on your shirtsleeve and steer you towards small films like this that are unlike most of what you see, but are irreplaceably rewarding for having been seen. But much of what seems admirable about Ida springs from a kind of contrived dishonesty that slowly eroded my initial appreciation of the film.

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an orphan who has been raised in a convent her entire young life. Early in the film, the Mother Superior calls her in and informs her of the existence of an aunt. Since the aunt is her only living relative, it’s appropriate that Anna should meet her before taking the vows that will forever cloister her from the everyday world. Anna isn’t thrilled with the idea; this person is so far out of Anna’s present experience that it seems pointless to bother with it. But the Mother Superior doesn’t give her a choice, and Anna submits to her elder’s wisdom.

I was struck by how similar this opening situation is to Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, another film that sends a young and cloistered innocent into the morally-conflicted secular world. Anna discovers that her Aunt Wanda (a superb Agata Kulesza) leads something less than a well-ordered life. Still attractive in middle-age, she’s a drinker, a smoker, and an unapologetically promiscuous single woman, and she carries a jaundiced bitterness fostered from two aspects of her life- her appointment as a Stalinist party judge, enforcing the will of the Communist regime on her own neighbors and countrymen, and the loss of her son at the conclusion of World War II, in what may have been extraordinarily sordid circumstances. As Wanda forthrightly explains to Anna, Anna’s real name is Ida Lebenstern, the infant daughter of Jewish parents who were undoubtedly killed by either the Nazis or, as Wanda suspects, their Polish victim / enablers.

Anna (Ida) decides to go to the small town of Piaski to follow the trail of her heretofore unknown parents. Wanda chooses to take her and, ultimately, takes charge of their inquiries. And their journey, sadly, reveals some dark truths about human nature and its propensities for denial in order to salvage tragically diminished, but still viable, lives.

The film takes place in the early sixties, although that’s a tough thing to eventually figure out. Pawlikowski, no doubt, doesn’t want to hem in what he feels to be universal truths about the situation with specifically-delineated historical distance, but, narratively, it can be confusing. Pawlikowski’s visuals are spare and sharp, filmed exclusively in black-and-white within the squarer ‘Academy’ frame, lending the film an almost reverently medieval minimalism, much like early Ingmar Bergman, or the work of other Eastern European filmmakers of the sixties like the Polish Jerzy Kawalerowicz or Czech filmmaker František Vláčil (trust me, Pawlikowski’s list of visual references is a self-knowingly long one). Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer Of Love, The Woman In The Fifth), working with his talented cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, creates many astonishingly beautiful images and tableaux that express volumes of feeling and information.

And herein lies my problem with the film. I mentioned Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana earlier, a ribaldly entertaining but, nonetheless, very serious-minded film that follows the effects of the quotidian world on the hermetically self-possessed Viridiana (Silvia Pinal). Buñuel is pretty scrupulous about expressing the effects of his world upon Viridiana through her. Anna (Ida) here, though, is almost willfully inexpressive. We, as the audience, feel genuine empathy and understandable discomfort with the events of the film as they are revealed, and those feelings are often reflected by Kulesza’s Wanda. But I didn’t detect an ounce of that from Anna (Ida) herself. There’s a rich film underneath the character of Ida, and Pawlikowski’s dependence on what he knows our reactions will be to the overall narrative takes up the rest of the slack, but the eponymous character that the whole narrative revolves around is curiously irrelevant. She’s a nun, so people like her and trust her, and she’s doesn’t take the bait of Wanda’s amiable derision towards her (“I’m a slut and you’re a little saint… This Jesus of yours adored people like me.”). Anna (Ida) learns she’s actually Jewish, but that doesn’t affect her, subjectively, one way or another. She seems similarly impassive towards the murder of her parents and the dark events that led to it, reflexively consoling Wanda rather than showing or feeling any reaction of her own. She even spends an intimate night with a handsome and likable young musician they meet on the journey, a wildly incongruous, almost unbelievable, choice, but her actions afterwards are just as enigmatic and unexplained as anything else. This episode could have happened in any coming-of-age melodrama - what's the point here? Everything Ida is exposed to is instructive, practically and emotionally, yet none of it seems to have any effect whatsoever on her. Our only indication that Anna (Ida) has subjectively absorbed any of this is her long walk along the road that concludes the film – substituting a technical trick for any kind of actual narrative closure, Pawlikowski’s Steadicam camera jerks, jostles and shakes as it walks along with her, imparting a visual turmoil (never previously seen in the film) that we have no evidence of existing within the character. Again, our own reactions can create a kind of wish-fulfillment character arc for whom we’d like Ida to be, and I suspect Pawlikowski depends on that far more than he should. Pawlikowski writes lots of visual / technical checks that his narrative, as written and performed, simply can't cash. Ida isn’t a flesh-and-blood character – she’s a plot-structural construct for Pawlikowski and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz to hang a lot of other historical resentment on. There are righteous reasons to have done that, but I ultimately felt pretty cheated nonetheless. And I felt bad for Trzebuchowska as well; she’s clearly talented enough to have handled more here (her camera sense is acute, and the camera clearly loves her back), but she never got the chance.

Don’t get me too far wrong – the film is well worth seeing for its unique visual and technical beauty, and the filmmakers weave a generally compelling historical narrative across it. But the vacuum at the film’s center eventually undermines a great deal of some otherwise artful work.