Emotion is a bitch- especially when it clouds one’s otherwise sound judgment. This is especially important when acting as a critic, because no one does- and no one should- give a rat’s ass what I, or any other critic, merely likes or dislikes. The critic, in that stated capacity, MUST be able to distance himself from his petty emotions, because human beings have not evolved a sense in which to convey emotion to one another with the facility and felicity that words can construct and reconstruct one’s ideas in another’s mind satisfactorily.
This came to the fore with the recent recommendation of Polish film director Pawel Pawlikowsky’s latest film, 2013’s Ida, to me via a handful of different sources (including my wife). Along with the usual generic huzzahs, this 81 minute long, black and white film, set in the early 1960s, has garnered raves from big media sources as ‘flawless’ and ‘a masterpiece,’ and many awards, as a seemingly artsy film, even as it tries to shamelessly and consciously ape the European arts films of that era- specifically those from Ingmar Bergman to Andrei Tarkovsky and, especially, those of Robert Bresson. The first hour is generally good to solid, with some very good moments, and a few bad tropes that do not augur well, while the film’s final third is a stream of unending clichés. So much so that, when I pointed out such manifest banalities, the film’s champions could only meagerly, ‘yes, but,’ me to oblivion. And, when I state this, I don’t mean that the last half our or so is merely bad by comparison to the first hour’s relative solidity, I mean it sucks- it’s BAD, in its screenplay, its visuals, its narrative, and even its acting, especially by its titular character’s actress. To return to my opening posit, however, and the emotional theme, this was a great disappointment.
But, on to the film and why it fails, ultimately, despite the near universal praise it’s garnered. The film opens and proceeds with a briskness, as single shots establish the convent life of a young Polish novitiate named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska- an actress who was discovered, Lana Turner style, by accident), who is an orphan, just days away from taking her final vows in mid-winter. We learn she has spent her life in the nunnery, then is summoned to her Mother Superior’s office, and told she has an aunt that she needs to see before she can take her vows.
This is melodrama alert the first- why just days before a life altering event is the Church hierarchy suddenly concerned with the girl’s past? Answer- because it has to be to propel the shaky plot. In reality, the girl would have known her past from youth, as we later find out that the priest who ran the orphanage the convent is tied to knew the specifics of her birth and coming. But, in an even MORE melodramatic move, the Church officials just send her on a quest without telling her the whys and wherefores of why she even needs to meet her aunt. Why could they seemingly not tell her of her past? What’s the BIG secret? She’s a Jew. Seriously. Yes, this is set in the early 60s, and the Communists were not fans of the Jews, either, but many Jews clearly thrived in the Communist system, so this ‘secret’ seems way overblown.
Nonetheless, Anna goes to a town and knocks on the door of her maternal aunt’s apartment. ‘Red Wanda’ Gruz (Agata Kulesza) is a judge in the local Communist political machine, who made her name a decade earlier as a sort of Communist counterpart to Joseph McCarthy, sending likely innocent dissidents to their deaths, via show trials. She looks uncannily like an older version of Anna- a fact unexploited by the director, who, instead, has Trzebuchowska stand in for Anna’s mother in old photos, rather than the woman who is her sister. We soon see that she still has a penchant for bullying and threatening others (‘I can destroy you’ is one of her threats) to get her way, as well as a habit of drinking to excess and bedding down with any man to ease her pain, guilt, and loneliness. She even drunk drives off the road, has her car towed out by a pair of horses, and spends a night in jail, threatening apparatchiks left and right.
Kulesza give the lone dynamite performance in an otherwise weak screenplay, littered with anomic performances, and represents a character of far more depth and interest than that of Anna, yet, as Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, did when it ignored its better story and character- a survivor of the Andersonville concentration camp, in favor of a silly wannabe ghost story- this film focuses on the wrong female protagonist, and somehow, with no real connection, and after an initial rejection of her niece, Red Wanda decides to take her on a cross-country sojourn to find out what happened to her parents; likely as a penance for her own parts in Soviet purges that destroyed even more lives than the Nazis did. Naturally, given the time frame, this means it had to be The Holocaust because all tragedy in the 20th Century, in film- at least, seemingly needs to stem from the Nazis, and not from the Communists, who ruled their subject lands longer and killed far more people. It’s never explicitly stated whether or not Red Wanda and her sister Roza Herc (Anna’s mother- who named Anna ‘Ida’) are Jewish, or whether merely Anna’s father, Haim Lebenstein (the name an obvious giveaway), is, because Wanda seems to hold something against Haim- perhaps the fact that his Jewishness is what led to Roza’s death, as well the death of an older brother that Anna never knew?
Nonetheless, Wanda seems to be on a mission, even when it’s clear that Anna has, at best, a lukewarm desire to know her newly revealed past. This very impulse by Wanda is never given greater reign, and the film suffers from its focus on the far less interesting Anna. Along the way, the duo pick up a jazz loving hitchhiker, a handsome nameless vagabond (Dawid Ogrodnik)- a saxophonist with a penchant for- - John Coltrane (he even plays a version of Naima). Could it get any more cliché? Yes, it can, and does. A short ride to a local hotel and it’s clear that Jazzboy and Anna will hit the sheets before film’s end; it’s only a matter of time. While in town, Red Wanda harangues and bullies the locals to find her familial home, now occupied by ethnic Poles, and she deduces that they helped the Nazis kill off her sister’s clan. She even goes to a local hospital to harass a dying old man who seems clueless, after futilely breaking into his apartment to get nonexistent evidence, only to find out it was his son who turned in the Lebensteins, and was ordered to kill them. Wanda goes on a drinking and sex binge, and expresses disdain for the sainted Anna, who leaves her aunt to make googoo eyes at Jazzboy in the hotel bar where he is gigging.
The son of the old man then makes a deal with Anna- he will take her and Wanda to the Lebenstein grave in return for her quitclaiming all rights to the property. Naïve Anna agrees, which only adds to the melodrama because, in real life, the Communist State Police would have loved to have arrested Nazi collaborators, and all this could have been resolved legally and easily. But whence would come the melodrama? A nice long shot follows, of the son leading the two women across a field to a wooded area where the bodies are, and Anna turning to wait for Wanda. The son digs up a few bones and a skull. Anna glowers at him, after he tells her he spared her life because she could pass as a non-Jew. This moment, when a glimpse of her pallor and red hair could have sufficed for that claim, and a few other shots, wherein the black and white film makes the daylight scenes seem cloudy, when there are clear breaks in the sky, underscores the poor and ill handled choice to shoot the film in black and white. Had Pawlikowsky not so slavishly been trying to ape the look and feel of the films Robert Bresson shot in the 1960s, his own film might have transcended these poor choices, and been an individuated work of art, not a copy of a copy of an individuated work of art.
Nonetheless, more melodrama ensues, and the last half hour from hell begins. Jazzboy and Anna say goodbye, even as you know he will return to the narrative to seduce her. The two women then take the bones, break into a graveyard and then bury them in the family plot. Why a judge simply did not order, or arrange for the order of, the disinterment of the plot, and order a decent burial has no real explanation, save for the slavishness to melodrama. It is utterly ridiculous, and relentlessly rents the film, and even the good hour that preceded the renting. Then we see Anna say she must return to the nunnery to take her final vows, even though the creaky script, the non-acting, and the body postures of the two female leads all says this is not so. We know Anna will relent- and, in front of the convent’s Jesus statue, she declaims this, even though the scenes of her back in nun life are so much more interesting than the wan Holocaust backstory- as example, the odd scene of five novitiates spread prostrate on a concrete floor in the church. Tales of Nazi and general war horrors are hard to make interesting, but how little is known, by even the layety, of Roman Catholic hoodooery?
Predictably, Red Wanda’s return to a post-Anna life results in misery- more boozing and picking up drunks for sex, hot baths, and then her opening her apartment window, and my sighing that I knew that, within ten to fifteen seconds, she was going out the window. Just as the old axiom of a gun seen in Act 1 of a play must be fired before Act 3 is done, so must a depressed person defenestrate themselves when a window is opened. Granted, unlike knowing of Jazzboy’s and Anna’s coming tryst from the first scenes they shared, I was not 100% expecting her jumping out a window, although suicide was a possibility, but the minute the window opened I just knew, and sighed in sadness over how poor the screenplay was. This was the moment the film became irrecoverable, in terms of arguing for its high quality. To the layety, it jumped the shark. Every other trope, of the last half hour, though, I literally knew and enumerated beforehand, and was 100% accurate.
With Red Wanda’s death, I knew that Anna would return to her apartment, then drink and smoke, try on her aunt’s ‘sexy’ clothes, and have a breakdown. She even wraps herself in a would be caul of draperies and falls to the floor, in a blatant aping of a similar scene from Bresson’s far superior 1967 black and white classic, Mouchette. At Wanda’s death, attended to by fellow apparatchiks, I knew there would be a pan from Anna to, no surprise, Jazzboy, standing by a tree. This was such an utterly terrible moment, and so laden with Nicholas Sparks level C romance novel schmaltz that I cannot accurately describe the depth of my sigh’s timbre at that moment, especially since this is a guy who would now be called a ‘playa’ in modern parlance, replete with cheesy pickup lines such as telling Anna she doesn’t realize the effect she has on men- even though the black and white cinematography mutes most of Anna’s appeal (which could have dazzled had the film been in color, if the photos of Trzebuchowska are an indication). Jazzboy is, at turns, smitten, smarmy, and both. While one can assume he would have learnt Wanda’s and Anna’s names while playing his hotel gig, as they stayed on, Wanda’s hometown was clearly a great distance away, in the opposite direction he was going to tour. How exactly would he learn of a minor apparatchik’s suicide in an authoritarian state, decades before the rise of the Internet, in a town he did not know? And how would he, ever in need of a lift, himself, make it to that town in time for a funeral, be able to find out when and where Red Wanda would be buried, and why would he be impelled to do so? For the unlikely opportunity of taking a nun’s virginity? The very fact that he shows up is a glaring neon sign that we are knee deep in melodrama for, clearly, he was the center of lust for other female groupies, as well his own band’s female lead singer (Joanna Kulig). But, he just HAD to trek hundreds of miles to attend the funeral of an unpleasant woman, just in the name and hopes of virgin poontang? Seriously, this is melodrama at its core and at its worst. It is even sub-Nicholas Sparks level because, at least, in a Sparks tale or film we KNOW this sort of crap is a-coming, and can prepare for the cheese the way lovers of bad science fiction films gleed at the Mystery Science Theater 3000 antics of yore. Naturally, the young couple soon hit the sheets, after a romantic slow dance, with Anna in bare feet and on tiptoes (yes, they went that far) and, you already know, from Anna’s mien, and past, that once she gets laid she will now have ‘experienced life,’ desire to flee her lover- who wants to tour, marry, have kids, etc., and return to the convent, secure that she now knows what she’ll be missing, as Red Wanda earlier taunted her, while trying to get her to abandon her saintedness.
The final shot is also damnably predictable. Having traveled by vehicle (modernity) the whole film, we see Anna simply walking away from the city and down the country road to the convent. She will be pure in body and mind, and abjure modernity and vice, and, in predictable fashion, she walks toward the camera as cars pass her and head away from the camera. Pawlikowsky is clearly recalling the powerful final shot of the great Orson Welles and Carol Reed film, The Third Man, but this end lacks all power because of its damnable predictability. In looking back at other scenes of the film, a second time, the work is loaded with equally bad framings and predictable tropes. The one that sticks out most is when, after Red Wanda’s suicide, and her tryst with Jazzboy, Anna decides to return to the nunnery to complete her vows, and we see her leave the kitchen, whose door hangs open, then head for the apartment’s front door, which she opens and closes. Again, this shot is so suffused with banal symbolism and predictability that the last third of the film rivals the last wretched five minutes of the otherwise great Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon, but then surpasses it with its surfeit of saccharine minutes.
The film is shown in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and most of the acting is, at best, passable, save for the plangent performance by Agata Kulesza’s Red Wanda, who is a surprisingly beautifully worn woman. Trzebuchowska’s Anna is a rather off the rack and wide-eyed ingénue. Had this been an American film, made a decade earlier, doubtless its star would have been Scarlett Johansson, fresh off her success in Girl With A Pearl Earring. Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s score is serviceable, as is Pawlikowski’s direction, while Pawlikowski’s and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay is a tattered rag by film’s end, while Ryszard Lenczewski’s and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography has some nice shots, such as one where Red Wanda is seen at the far end of a hall, dwarfed by the interior architecture of a building, but mostly it’s not memorable, and, as described above, in the ‘doors’ scene, the framing is often tediously didactic and larded with obvious metaphors.
Most critics, of course, have raved on the film, and even the few negative criticisms are often taking the film to task for reasons that are wrong. Yet, some of the very basics of the film’s bases are wrong in almost all the reviews- pro or con, such as this one, from The Guardian:
It is 1962, and Anna is about to take her final vows in the convent where she was left as an orphan baby in 1945 by persons unknown. But Anna has one surviving relative, and the Mother Superior – who has clearly guessed more about Anna’s background than she admits – insists that she contact this woman before she makes the irrevocable decision.
This is simply wrong, and a perfect example of critical cribbing, for most of this information cannot be found in the film itself, but likely just in the PR material for it. No dates are given for either the film’s present, nor the year Anna’s family is murdered. We have no idea of Anna’s age- she could be anything from 16 to 22. We also have no idea that the Mother Superior has guessed Anna’s past, and, in fact, since Anna was left with the head priest, it is utterly likely her past is well known to all at the orphanage and convent. What is remarkable is how utterly easy this total misinformation is propounded and repeated ad nauseam.
Just as remarkable is how easily gulled most percipients of any art are by blatant appeals to their emotions, when wrapped up in the garb of art cribbed from other, greater sources. Ida is larded with melodrama, narrative gaps, apings of Bresson, nods to Bergman and Tarkovsky (far more prosaically than those masters’ works), a focus on lesser characters while a great creation (Red Wanda) is damned to a trite end rather than exploring the real emotional aftermath Anna’s arrival would have in such a woman’s life. More damning of the film, though, is that, even had it technical aspects in a league with the best of Bergman and Tarkovsky, it could never anneal the total and indefensible damage the last third of the film enacts with its banality and predictability. Even in sections that are good, there are problems that a great film simply does not have. Look at how quickly the aunt takes Anna in, after a lifetime of ignorance, and then they depart, unemotionally. Then, after a day of work, she sees Anna at a restaurant and, in pure melodramatic fashion, she then reunites with and champions her cause. The things we see of this character, and what is known of such human circumstance, dictates that this would not happen, but melodrama’s needs countermand that, and I know melodrama, having watched old movie serials as a child, soap operas for over 35 years, and professional wrestling for even longer. I also am well versed in the classic works of Ancient Greece and Shakespeare- the King of Melodrama, not real drama, which only emerged with the 19th Century Modernist revolution in theater. It is not, per se, a bad thing, for there is good and bad melodrama, just as there is good and bad drama. That said, to know melodrama is to know how to subvert it and extract its best memes and techniques to be employed n real drama and higher art. Ida and Pawlikowsky are bereft of this knowledge. Melodrama is never subverted, and is indulged in the worst forms and times, contrasted awkwardly with a few great moments of drama (or potential drama). Interesting tropes (Red Wanda’s psychology and the inner workings of the nunnery) are never even broached, in favor of plodding and heavyhanded romance level schmaltz.
The sum of all this, though, is that Ida is a vastly overrated mediocrity. It’s not a bad film, despite its horrid ending, but it’s not even really a good film. It’s just there- mediocre, predictable, gray, overwrought, underwritten, and- STOP! One defenestration per film is enough!