It's rare I watch a Holocaust related film. I'm all Holocaust-ed out. I get it. It's unface-able, unthinkable and now unwatchable for me. One can only take so many peeks into the depths of the human soul and remain connected. I've seen films before where I've been so enraged I'd sanction a present day bombing run over Germany. They have to pay! But of course, there is no possible restitution for the nightmare that was the Third Reich. Vengeance is truly the Lord's.
But Ida tempted me with something that always fascinates me: the psychological aftereffects of trauma. I'd also witnessed this in the great film "The Pawnbroker", a man left emotionally sterile by his time in the camps. The Holocaust did not end in 1946. It did, in fact, last for an entire generation at least. The magnitude of the horror is not comprehensible by the human mind. Sometimes, in the telling of a single story, one can get a glimpse of it - and never be the same.
Just for the record, Poland has some of the most brutal WWII films ever made. The country was raped in the worst possible way. I have a huge affection for Poland and it's no coincidence that the first breaks from the Soviet grip came from there. "Ida" is the story of one girl - and of one nation. I'm crying as I type this.
Left at a preacher's door as a baby during the war, Ida knows only the convent where she has grown up and is eager to take the vows to become a nun. What she doesn't know is her story, her heritage or even her true name. Before she can take her vows she must visit her never before met Aunt and it's there Ida learns she's a Jew and the pair begin an odyssey of reconstructing her past.
First, a few notes about the filmmaking. Shot in what can only be described as a stunning black and white it gives the perfect feel for Communist Poland of 1962. A couple of the shots took my breath away. But the director went overboard in the retro department shooting it in 4:3 perspective fitted for a TV as opposed to the usual 16:9. It was certainly a bit distracting.
The pacing to some is slow but that is not true in reality. Every second of every shot is telling more of the story. I heard an elderly gent next to me complain he could not keep up with the film as it gives so little exposition. The director trusts the audience to connect the dots and also have a knowledge of the persecution in WWII. The mood, the cinematography, the economic storytelling come together beautifully. I sat there like a gourmand anticipating a scrumptious meal.
"What if we get there and you find there is no God?"
That, for me, was when the movie started. Ida had wanted to view her parents' graves but her aunt knew of their tragic, inhuman demise. A search for their graves would reveal a time of a godless world for which there was no answer. Ida trusts God is everywhere. The disconnect being, of course, there's only as much God in this world as we allow in.
The aunt is by far the most complex and fascinating character in the film. She's so fully developed it leaves the title character looking shallow in comparison. A Soviet official, she is able to throw her weight around as the pair take off on a road trip to find answers - answers to questions most people want to forget. Godless times reveal the worst of men's characters.
There are no graves to be found. The farming family who protected Ida's parents during the war also killed them, burying them deep in the woods. We also find the reason for the aunt's heavy drinking. Her son who stayed with the family had also been killed, left behind as his mother went to fight. The guilt had never left her, the holocaust a daily re-occurrence.
The parallel story is that of the aunt trying to draw her niece back to life in the real world, not to throw it away in the convent. How successful she is is left ambiguous by the ending. My interpretation is the director wanted wanted to show the girl could not be satisfied with an ordinary life and needed a meaning to it beyond everyday life. The totality of her ancestry demanded it. I wholly agree with that sentiment if not the execution of portraying that.
It was brave of the film to explore Ida's reaction after learning the truth, to see the continuing psychological effects of Nazi atrocities, but I felt the final scene as dishonest. The film could have been 20% better had it had an ending more along the lines of "The 400 Blows". The other part that bothered me was Ida's nonplussed reaction at the revelation of the depths to which the human soul will sink. Hard to imagine there had been detailed accountings of Jewish murders and betrayals in a Catholic convent. A bit lazy and dishonest by the filmmaker not to deal with that. Plus it would have given Ida more of the depth she needed.
"Ida", even with its flaws, is a film worth seeing. The more you know of Nazi persecutions the more you will appreciate it (a reference by a boy she meets being part Gypsy is a telling acknowledgement). It's the story of one family's unspeakable fate, leaving the viewer to multiply that in their imagination by millions.
Bonus film reviews!
"Cold In July" is a sick film. I got suckered in partly by its east Texas setting and partly because of my guilty weakness for Don Johnson. It's what I call an "excuse film". When you see a Chuck Norris film, you know it's an excuse for him to go around heel kicking bad guys left and right. "Cold In July" is an excuse film for hollow, crowd pleasing characters and, ultimately, to squeeze in perversion as sick as any Nazi atrocity. This is a film strictly for psychos and disconnects - and yes I know there's no shortage of both who think evil makes them somehow relevant.
"Haywire" is another excuse film. Yes, I know it's from 2011 but I just now got around to watching it because it had so many mixed reviews at the time. But it's kick ass! In fact, that's all it is. An awesome display by MMA fighter Gina Carano is delightful if you enjoy watching a female kick ass for once. Her moves are unique and she's way easy on the eyes. The plot is not worth understanding, just know it gives her an excuse to mix it up about every five minutes. See it if that's your cup of tea only.