- Film Chronicle
If you missed seeing Pawel Pawlikowski’s Idawhen it appeared in your local art house in 2013, you can watch it now, on a just-released Music Box Films DVD (or on Amazon Prime Instant Play, for free). I recommend doing so, though to the list of descriptors of this remarkable film— understated acting, minimalist dialogue, long silences, wintry outdoor locations—should be added “will not be to everyone’s taste.” Winner of the best foreign picture award at the Oscars in 2015, Idais the story of a young Polish woman on the eve of taking her final vows as a nun. In the course of a visit with her aunt, she learns that her name is not the Catholic “Anna” but the Jewish “Ida” and that she is the survivor of a family murdered in World War II. The aunt, Wanda, drives Ida off into the wastes of Behind-the-Iron-Curtain Poland, searching for the truth about their family’s fate, and the process of discovery can be unpleasant to witness. No one wants to help the women, and Wanda (played spectacularly well by Agata Kulesza) gradually comes apart, being alternatively enraged at informants’ lies and sodden in drink. Bitterly cynical, and guilt-laden as well, she has lost the faith in Communism which once sustained her. An analogous loss of faith in Catholicism threatens Ida, especially after she begins a tentative exploration of alcohol and sex with a handsome young saxophone player; at film’s end her decision whether to leave or re-enter the convent is not disclosed. As played by Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida keeps her feelings indecipherably hidden, which gives a special power to the late moment when, in close-up, two small tears are shown trickling down her cheek. In Idaeven crying is restrained.
Restraint governs all the film’s technique. Besides a few snatches of mitteleuropaischjazz performed by the saxophonist and his band, only a little classical music is heard on the soundtrack, and Ryszard Lencze-wski and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography employs a fixed camera almost throughout. Only at one especially dramatic juncture, Ida’s flurried escape from the city of Lodz, does the camera travel, thus visually conveying the [End Page 108]character’s sudden panic. Elsewhere, the film’s static framings allow the viewer to take in every detail of Poland in 1962, from empty fields and leafless trees to the high ceilings of once grand, now shabby rooms. It is a nice question which sort of architecture looks the most desolate, Ida’s stony convent, a hospital with old people dying in stoic silence, the bleak roadside bar where Wanda calls for another brandy and eyes a possible pick-up. The framings are as carefully composed as those in the films of Pawlikowski’s great Polish predecessor Andrzej Wajda, and they often place Ida or Wanda oft-center, in a way that seems odd but at the same time aesthetically pleasing. And everything is photographed in black-and-white. However surprising in 2013, this seems the right choice for depicting a country from which life has been drained.
By contrast, the black-and-white of Paramount’s 1950 Union Stationis scarcely noticeable. This is simply how low- or medium-budgeted films, especially crime dramas, were photographed then. The virtues of Union Station, now newly available in Blu-Ray from Olive Films (and again on Amazon Prime Instant Play), are precisely the conventional ones of medium-budgeted films of its period, when studio Hollywood was at its efficient best. The story, of a kidnapping, is taut and believable, the big-city train-station setting well rendered: Chicago’s Union Station, we are led to believe, though in fact the location photographed was Los Angeles’ Union Station...