The first dialogue in Ida, Pavel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning film, comes about two-and-a-half minutes in, after a series of shots that establish the life of the convent where Ida is a novitiate in 1960s Poland. It runs like this:
MOTHER SUPERIOR: Her name is Wanda Gruz. She is your aunt. We wrote to her many times asking her to take you. But she never did.
IDA: Maybe she never got the letters?
MOTHER SUPERIOR: She did. Because finally she replied that she couldn’t come. You should meet her before you take your vows. She is your only living relative.
IDA: Do I have to, Mother?
MOTHER SUPERIOR: Yes, Anna. You will go and see her and stay there for as long as necessary.
And in this brief exchange we know almost as much as we need to about the dynamics of the plot. Ida is going on a journey, she doesn’t want to, but if she doesn’t do it she won’t be able to become a nun. And we also know that time doesn’t matter. So this isn’t going to be one of those stories where the plot is driven by a deadline.
Watching the film reminded me of a paradox I learnt in my short and unsuccessful career in the film business: you’re more likely to produce a film with global appeal by writing something that visits a small and intensely local world.
This was 25 years ago, and at the time the favoured example was Cinema Paradiso, which had become an international smash. But it doesn’t just apply to period films. The Bill Forsyth film, Gregory’s Girl, also fits this bill, set in the Scottish new town Cumbernauld, made largely with unknown actors, and released in the United States with subtitles because of alleged thickness of the Scottish accents. You can probably think of your own examples.
For Pawlikowski, the subject matter of Ida is perhaps an unusual choice. Despite his name, he has spent most of his film career working in Britain, having come to the country in his teens. He is as British as he is Polish, although he returned to live in Warsaw recently following the death of his wife.
And this may be one of those films that could only be made by a culturally-connected outsider, who sees the place through fresh eyes, with new questions. And perhaps also the Poland in Ida is a country remembered: remembered as an idea, or remembered as an affect, from his childhood.
No spoilers, I hope, but the film’s impact also comes through its use of genre. It has the form of a road movie, as Ida and her aunt drive deep into rural Poland, and deep into the family’s past, to find the secret of how Ida came to be orphaned. But in using genre it also plays against it.
The car, in ‘60s Poland, is a status symbol (the aunt is someone in the Party) and not many people have them, but it is also pretty clapped out.
Most road movies have at their heart a dream of freedom, albeit a dream that is often dashed. But watching Ida one knows from the start of the film that this is a journey back into a closed and claustrophobic world, a world which the aunt has kept at bay for twenty-plus years with alcohol.
But it’s not completely closed. The Poland of Ida is on the edge between an old Poland, still dominated by wartime secrets and wartime legacies, and a new one, seen best in the milieu of the jazz sub-plot, which represents a side to the Eastern Bloc countries that is rarely seen.
Pawlikowski’s portrait of it is every bit as affectionate as Josef Skvorecky’s neglected Czech novellas in The Bass Saxophone, along with his introductory essay. With the benefit of hindsight we also know that the Catholic church, which seemed to be part of the old Poland, turned out to be crucial in shaping the new one as well.
Anyway, I promised no spoilers, so I hope this is elliptical enough. It turns out that the freedoms that might be open to Ida are just another kind of prison. Having reluctantly gone exploring at the instruction of the Mother Superior, at the end she knows the place for the first time.
The stills are courtesy of the film-makers: there is a wonderful gallery here.