“Ida,” Oscar-winning best foreign-language film


Pros: cinematography, saxophonist

Cons: lack of character development even with startling revelation about title character’s past

I had not heard of the movie “Ida” before it received the Academy Award for best foreign-language film (which should have gone to “Timbuktu”). If I’d known that it was another confrontation with the holocaust, I’d have been less surprised by the Academy choice… and perhaps somewhat less critical of the short, somewhat opaque, black-and-white, 1.37:1-aspect movie that is now streaming on Netflix. I guess that writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, who studied at Oxford was hailed for the thriller “The Woman on the Fifth Floor,” which starred Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but I have seen neither it nor his documentaries for British tv.


Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an orphan/novitiate aged 17 or 18 who is scheduled to take final vows as a nun in a small Polish convent. The mother superior orders her to visit her only living relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza) an alcoholic former prosecutor for the communist government since having been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis. The time is not specified, but must be the late-1950s (or very early 1960s).


Wanda informs her niece that she is a Jew, whose parents named her Ida Lebenstein. The two women go to the farm where the Lebensteins (including Wanda’s young son) were sheltered… until they weren’t. The confrontation with the members of the family that are still on the farm than belonged to the Lebensteins are fraught, and there is a bland romantic encounter with a saxophonist whom Wanda picked up hitchhiking (personable Dawid Ogrodnik), but Wanda’s motivations (past and present) remain pretty enigmatic, and I have no idea what Anna/Ida thinks about anything she learns or does. That is Trzebuchowska is pretty but blank-faced. Lack of previous acting experience is not always a positive thing!

The bleak interiors and exteriors were artfully shot by Łukasz Żał. The lack of specificity about when the events are supposedly occurring is matched by opaqueness of motivations for both of the women on a road trip to the past of Polish/Roman Catholic complicity with Nazi genocide.

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