Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Silence and the Complicating Dead

Ida is a novice nun in the mid 1960s who discovers, just before she's about to take her vows, that her parents were Jewish and they were murdered during World War II. Ida and her crisis of faith are the subjects of 2014's Ida, a beautifully, sombrely shot film about a cold, quiet world.

The beginning of the film is so similar to Luis Bunuel's Viridiana I almost thought it was a remake--the film begins at a convent where the young would-be nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) is told she needs to visit with her family before taking her vows. In Viridiana, Viridiana goes to visit her rich and influential but lonely uncle. In Ida, Ida goes to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who lives alone in a small apartment and is a judge. She mentions at one point that she has sent many people to their deaths in the name of the Polish People's Republic, the Stalinist regime that controlled Poland at the time.

But there's still something of a parallel--Viridiana is at odds with her uncle's godless lust that he indulges in to alleviate his loneliness and Ida silently disapproves of Wanda for her promiscuity. Wanda throws back at her that Jesus loved people like her, she asks her to look at Mary Magdalene. When Wanda tries to find a page in Ida's bible to support her argument, the otherwise thoroughly restrained Ida angrily hides her book under her pillow and storms out of the hotel room they share. But it's perhaps the revelation of Ida's heritage that is the biggest challenge to her faith.

She wants to visit her parents' graves but she is told there are no graves, that, like so many Jews during the war, their bodies were likely not disposed of in any civilised fashion. Ida and Wanda journey to the small, rural farm that previously belonged to their family and find a new Christian family occupying it. The only remnant of Ida's parents is a stained glass window Wanda tells her was made by her mother in the barn--putting a stained glass window in a barn is something Wanda brings up to illustrate the dead woman's eccentric personality.

Ida is one of the most successful modern films I've seen to capture the feeling of an earlier period. It feels very much as though it is the same time and place as the events depicted in the 1958 Polish film Ashes and Diamonds and the rebel protagonist of that film may well have been sent to his death by Wanda. But I was also reminded of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light for the general austerity of the film's aesthetic and mood tied to the story of a crisis of faith.

There's generally a lot of space at the top of the frame, above the characters, emphasising a void above them and their insignificance in the scheme of things.

But the comparison I couldn't get out of my head all along was to Viridiana. Viridiana is a more complex film, a better film, but Ida is much more about mood, a moving portrait of people rather than an illustration of an argument. Not unlike The Zero Theorem, it seems to portray an acceptance of faith even as the evidence against a higher power is horribly incontrovertible.

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