Critics have gushed over “Ida,” the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski, perhaps mesmerized by the moody gray cinematography that telegraphs the message that this somber art film is weighty and meaningful. The plot concerns a young novitiate about to take her vows who is sent by the Mother Superior to meet her only living relative, a woman who had previously spurned the convent’s attempts to summon her. Obediently, the young laconic woman goes to meet this unknown aunt from whom she discovers that she is actually a Jew whose parents were killed during the holocaust. Unfortunately, this film comes after this year’s “The Jewish Cardinal,” “Aftermath,” “The German Doctor” and numerous movies from previous years that touch on the subject of what happened to the Jews of Poland. We are no longer shocked or even startled by the news that a young Polish nun in the 1960’s might have been a Jewish child - orphaned, rescued and brought to a convent.
Neither is the actress who plays the part of Ida - her expression remains unchanged throughout most of the movie as she impassively observes the people and situations of life outside the convent without appearing to emotionally absorb them. Though eventually she hears the details of her parents’ violent murder and recaptures their bones for proper burial in a cemetery, Ida remains an enigmatic cipher. She is far less interesting than her flamboyant and tortured aunt who rescues the film from monotony by her self-flagellation for the sins of her communist past and one additional tragedy that cuts much closer to the bone. This performance by Agata Kulesza, though vivid and varied, relies too heavily on the Bette Davis props of constant smoking and drinking as shorthand for character development. Remembering the subtlety of Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sophie in that eponymously titled movie makes you realize the difference between the visceral feeling of plunging into a character’s soul as opposed to watching an actor find devices to keep her hands busy. I don’t expect every actor to be compared with Meryl Streep but I like to think that critics reserve their superlatives for only those rare great performances, not ones for which the words “well done” would suffice.
Far from being life-changing, Ida’s brief foray into the turbulent past and a disturbing present only serve to intensify her conviction that withdrawal into a cloistered life of self-abnegation is the proper course for her. There are no great epiphanies in this movie, no revelations about the horrors of the holocaust that we haven’t seen and heard many times before, and strangely, in a film about this period , nothing about the pogroms against the straggling Jews who sought to return to their homes in post-war Poland. It’s an underwritten movie that is concise yet seems much longer largely because Ida doesn’t seem to be involved in its drama. There comes a point when watching a young woman stare at everything she witnesses without reaction serves to un-involve us in her life. For a movie dealing with someone devoted to prayer and contemplation, more insight and self-awareness are essential. Unfortunately, Pawlikowski leaves it to the viewer to supply these after the movie ends.
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