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The Sisterhood of the Traveling Aunt

Ida (2013)

38. Gdynia Film Festival

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun on the brink of taking the vows that will sequester her from the world indefinitely. Her mother superior (Halina Skoczynska) generously advises her that she may want to connect with her only known living relative before being cloistered, so Anna subsequently acquaints herself with Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking, straight-talking 40-something dropout.

In the process Wanda reveals that Anna is in fact Ida, a Jew who was left on the convent’s doorsteps amidst the carnage of World War II. Thus begins a road movie in which two strikingly different characters embark on a journey of discovery, uncovering facts about their family history which have been concealed up by years of guilt, denial and obfuscation.

Director Pavel Pawlikowski eschews most of the clichés you’d expect from this setup. The idea of the road movie in which a character has to experience some thrills before returning to a mandatory life of responsibilities is a staple from teen movies, and serious dramas like “The Last Detail.” This dynamic is part of the plot, but in a much more serious vein — any experimentation that Ida undertakes will form part of her spiritual awakening as she learns about her past and true identity, rather than a hedonistic desire for new experiences.

Similarly the idea of two distinct characters thrust together on a road trip is a common one, but again any allusions Mr. Pawlikowski makes to the formula are a key and necessary component of the story and its themes. Mr. Pawlikowski may emphasize the differences between Ida, the reticent, emotionally glacial nun, and Wanda, the bitter and promiscuous ex-prosecutor, but not out of a desire to mine the juxtaposition for laughs. Their personalities, faults and differences are products of their respective developmental environments, in turn derived from the upheavals of Polish history.

Mr. Pawlikowski is returning here to the 1960s Poland of his childhood, having spent most of his life and filmmaking career in Britain. In doing so he also makes some nods to the awakening of Polish cinema that occurred during the period. Just as the ’60s represented an era in which Polish cinema and art could begin to examine the effects of the war with more honesty, so it’s also this period in which Ida and Wanda can suddenly awaken to confront the past. While much of the photography is reminiscent of the Polish New Wave, the references are also reaffirmed by a prominent character who’s a saxophonist and the resulting jazz on the soundtrack — bringing to mind how the strains of Krzysztof Komeda seemed to accompany every Polish film from the ’60s.

Mr. Pawlikowski takes a very distinct directorial approach to the material which involves leaving lots to the imagination, eliminating aspects of information and glossing over elements that others might have mined for more drama. In a sense this idea of suppressed information reflects a theme at the heart of the film, but conversely the film is also about the cathartic release of unearthing the past, and as such Mr. Pawlikowski’s approach seems strangely antithetical. It’s a film that’s as coy and reticent as its titular character, which — coupled with Mr. Pawlikovski’s rare keenness for economy (the film only runs 80 minutes) — gives the sense that the director is holding back in a way that’s artistically refreshing and laudable, but perhaps also at odds with such autobiographically resonant material.

While this may affect the film’s ability to connect with wider audiences, more discerning viewers should find much to admire here. Mr. Pawlikowski delivers a pleasingly photographed, subtle and affecting drama in which all the key dramatic notes are played with deftness and care. It’s certainly Mr. Pawlikowski’s most successful dramatic work since his excellent first feature, “Last Resort,” and in some ways it harks back even further to his masterful documentary work in the way it investigates the theme of the suppression of heritage and the destructive forces such suppression can unleash.


Opens on May 2, 2014 in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski; directors of photography, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski; edited by Jaroslaw Kaminski; music by Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen; production design by Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski; costumes by Aleksandra Staszko; produced by Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol and Ewa Puszczynska; released by Music Box Films (United States). In Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Agata Kulesza (Wanda), Agata Trzebuchowska (Anna), Dawid Ogrodnik (Lis), Jerzy Trela (Szymon), Adam Szyszkowski (Feliks) and Halina Skoczynska (Mother Superior).


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