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Archive for May, 2014

One surprising side effect of the digitization of cinema is that it’s made certain old fashioned stylistic choices popular again. Only a few years ago, if a director wanted to make a movie in black and white, their best option was to shoot it on colour film stock and then have it transfered to black and white by a lab. (According to a recent blog post by Kristin Thompson, the fastest black and white film stock currently available only has an ASA of 200.) At the same time, a movie shot in the academy ratio (1.33:1) couldn’t get a wide release because most theatres didn’t have the plates needed to project one. But as digital technology eliminates the need for film stock, labs, and plates, there’s been a small rash of movies in recent years that try to recreate the look of films from the past. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) is set in Poland in the 1960s and the beautifully textured black and white cinematography is reminiscent of movies from that era.

At a mere eighty minutes, the film is only slightly shorter than a normal Polish feature of the early ’60s, though it could’ve been a lot shorter (or much longer). As the movie opens, the heroine (Agata Tzebuchowska) is a novitiate in a convent who’s about to take her vows and one can see everything that happens in the film as delaying her from doing this. First, the mother superior orders her to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a communist judge whom she’s never met. Wanda informs her that her parents, who died when she was a baby, were Jews killed in the Holocaust and that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. In the movie’s lengthy middle section, the two women set out on a road trip to uncover the circumstances of their deaths, and as Wanda knows the name of the man who hid Ida’s parents during the war and where he used to live, they might’ve sussed out this information fairly quickly. However, the screenplay keeps finding excuses to delay the revelation.

When Ida and her aunt arrive at the farmhouse where her parents hid during the war, the young woman living there tells them to come back in the evening when her husband is home. From the husband, they learn that their quarry, Szymon (Jerry Trela), now lives in the city, and on the drive there, Wanda — who spends the afternoon getting soused at the village pub — goes off the road and spends the night in jail for drunk driving. When they arrive at Szymon’s apartment, a neighbor tells them that he’s in the hospital and suggests they come back later. They call again the next day, and when nobody answers, they go directly to the hospital to confront Szymon — something they might’ve done the day before had the neighbor not told them to come back. There’s also a minor subplot involving a jazz musician they pickup hitchhiking (David Ogrodnik) who invites them to come to his show, which serves to further postpone the outcome of their investigation.

Pawlikowski tells this story in a terse style unlike any communist-era Polish film I’ve seen (but then I’m hardly an expert). The camera almost never moves, and Pawlikowski’s manner of constructing space reminds one more of Robert Bresson than Andrzej Wajda or Wojciech Has. In the scene in the pub, we only know where Wanda is sitting in relation to the bartender and another customer by their eye lines (Wanda looking offscreen left at the bartender; the two of them looking offscreen right at the other customer), and by the occasional intrusions of the bartender’s hands on the far left side of the screen when the camera is on Wanda. Following the rule of thirds, Pawlikowski often places the focal point of a shot slightly off center and near the bottom of the screen, thereby emphasizing the narrowness of the frame — an idea that probably wouldn’t have occurred to a Polish director in the ’60s when the academy ratio was the norm. In other words, by resuscitating stylistic options that have fallen out of fashion, the film only makes us more acutely aware of the distance between the period depicted in the movie and the present, and that’s part of what makes it interesting.

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