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Posted by martinteller on June 17, 2014

One of the worst things that happens to me as a movie reviewer is having a lukewarm reaction to a highly-praised film.  It doesn’t give me any kind of rebel thrills, I have no desire to run around shouting about the emperor’s new clothes.  On the contrary, it makes me feel inadequate as a cinephile, that I am missing the nuances and qualities that obviously make this movie an instant classic.  And then I get petrified to write anything, I’d rather just skip the review and hide my opinions under a rock like my secret shame.  If I put my opinions out there, someone is going to comment about how wrong I am, and man do I hate that.  What if they’re right?  What if I’m just really stupid?

And Ida definitely has a lot of fans.  Talk about critical darlings.  One thing I do when I have mixed feelings about a movie is read other reviews.  There are almost no negative reviews of this movie.  The vast majority of them are full of nothing but praise (one of them claims the movie will appeal to “more discerning viewers”, which really burns me up).  How do I go up against that?  And you can see, I’ve hardly even begun this review.  For those who might not know anything about the film, it concerns a young woman in 1960’s Poland named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) raised in an orphanage, about to take her vows to enter the convent.  She learns that she has a living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).  She meets up with Wanda, who tells Ida that her real name is Ida, that she is a Jew, and that her parents were lost in the Holocaust.  They go back to the village where Ida’s parents were hiding and try to uncover their fate.

In terms of plot, there’s not much more to it, although it would be disingenuous of me to say there’s nothing else to the story.  Wanda is a judge held (or once held) in high esteem by the Communist leadership, but now she is an alcoholic and a “slut” (her words, not mine).  Unsettling truths are uncovered about the people who hid Ida’s parents, a revelation that speaks on Poland’s secretive and sometimes shameful relationship to the Holocaust.  Ida, of course, goes through some changes on this journey and for Wanda, it dredges up uncomfortable feelings.  Much of the interior emotion of the characters is played through subtle facial acting.  Perhaps too subtle, and a lot of the time it feels like non-acting.  Not in a “blank slate, project your own thoughts onto the character” Bressonian way, but in a frustrating, “show me a little more” way.  Are Ida’s shifts in character complex and motivated by outside forces, or are they poorly delineated?  The “understated” performance that Trzebuchowska is receiving accolades for felt more like “unstated” to me.  And this is coming from a person who generally prefers the understated.

I also generally gravitate towards films that are “slow”, as I have often mentioned in reference to my love of Ming-liang Tsai, Bela Tarr, Anh Hung Tran, Andrei Tarkovsky and others.  So what does it mean that I came dangerously close to nodding off during this movie?  It’s not because I need a lot of car crashes or sex scenes.  When I think of other movies that put me to sleep, Hulk and Miami Vice come to mind.  So if I can call myself a “more discerning viewer”, then perhaps I was just too tired at the time.  In fact, that’s what I’m inclined to believe.  But I didn’t feel that tired going into it, so just maybe the movie itself is too soporific.  Because what’s really so fresh and original here?  People rave about the austerity of the film, as if they’d never heard of Carl Theodor Dreyer.  They rave about a Holocaust film with no heroes, as if we didn’t have The Pawnbroker or Night and Fog or The Shop on Main Street.  They rave about the cinematography, and there I will agree.  It’s a beautiful film, shot in the Academy ratio and low-contrast black & white.  Characters occupy the margins of the frame, and even though that is also nothing new, it’s put to good use.  In the convent scenes, Ida and other nuns live on the bottom of the screen, as if all the extra headroom was needed to suggest the presence of God hanging over them.

I just didn’t find anything all that new or interesting being said, and I wasn’t moved by Ida at all.  Wanda is somewhat what compelling, and Kulesza’s performance is something special.  But the thematic content of the film is too disengaged.  Ambiguities can be delightful, and hashing out some of them in discussion afterwards was enjoyable.  However, it sometimes felt like our group was scrambling to find meaning, reaching for significance.  I felt the film was hiding its lack of interesting ideas and perspectives behind its austerity.  Many of my favorite films are very slow, austere works.  I am usually drawn to any narrative that involves the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.  And I have adored Polish films by the likes of Kieslowski, Wajda, Has, Majewski, Polanski and Munk, especially when there is commentary about the country’s political history.  But this slow, austere Polish movie about the Holocaust left me pretty cold and nearly put me to sleep.  It’s possible I was sleepy to begin with and my experience would be different with a few Diet Cokes in me beforehand.  I don’t know, but I do know a couple of others who saw it (including my fiancée) also found it hard to keep their eyes open.  I also know that others — many others — were profoundly moved by it, and I can’t discount their experience either.  Rating: Fair (67)


8 Responses to “Ida”

  1. Nancy said

    Now I’ve gotta see it. And it was in the nyt crossword in the last couple of weeks. That’s big.

  2. Joanne Austin said

    A bit disappointed that I couldn’t stay past the movie ending for discussion due to unexpected house guests. The beauty of art is that we all get to own our individual experiences with it. Your review is insightful even though I’m very much in the “loved this movie” camp. I especially loved the cinematography (camera angles and shots, as you note). If movies are “machines to generate empathy” (Roger Ebert quote repeated in the “Life Itself” trailer before the movie started last night), this one worked for me.

  3. mountanto said

    The best thing I can say is…it worked for me. I can definitely understand finding it too muted, but I was quite thoroughly drawn in. It probably helped that I was in a really good mood, having been dazzled by The Dance of Reality earlier in the day, but obviously Ida’s unique qualities did most of the work.

    It does raise a good question about reading things into films (or pieces of art in general): how much does one’s interpretation of an artwork say about oneself, as opposed to the art?

  4. Mike Wu said

    Martin you ignorant slut. This is the arty movie that does arty movies right! It’s black and white, subtitled, has tons of risky cinematography and jazz music, deals with suicide AND religion: all the things that would normally make me run screaming. But this movie made me love all those things again. Oh well. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve disagreed on something old friend!

    • Mike! I’m just thrilled you look at my blog. I’ve been doubting my first impressions of this movie and wondering if I was too harsh on it. Not enough to go back and rewatch it, but I’m willing to admit I may have been in a contrarian mood that day.

      P.S. You gotta RSVP for my wedding!

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