A Visit to Their Roots

23 Feb
February 23, 2015

You’d think that after 70 years they’d have used up all the possible Holocaust stories. But they keep coming up with new ones.

Now, from Poland, the site of the largest and most infamous of Nazi concentration camps (Auschwitz) comes Ida, the story of a Jewishirl’s coming of age in the 1960s.

The film is Poland’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and for Best Cinematography. And a beautifully directed, sensitive film it is.

It begins two weeks before a young novitiate, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), is about to take her final vows as a nun. Abandoned as a baby, she had spent her childhood in an orphanage/convent being taught to live by the religious beliefs and within the sequestered silence of her fellows.

But the Mother Superior has another plan for her. She reveals that Anna has a living aunt and insists that Anna meet her before she takes her vows. So, reluctantly, Anna goes off to a small village to meet Wanda, an aunt that she didn’t know she had.

Another thing that Anna didn’t know she had was a Jewish heritage.

Wanda, who was her mother’s sister, tells Anna that her real birth name was Ida Liebenstein and tells her about her family, all of whom were killed in the Second World War. Wanda, however, survived to become a Communist Party insider, a prominent prosecuting attorney and a ferocious judge, as well as a compulsive drinker and a sexually promiscuous woman. She is cynical, unhappy, and aloof. But she gradually warms up to this reclusive girl who is her only living relative, and she agrees to take her to visit the village where the family once lived.

They are searching for someone who would remember the family and would know where they were buried. But nobody will acknowledge having known them. “There are no Jews here,” they say.

Meanwhile, Wanda has offered a ride to a young hitchhiker who is on his way to the same town to which they are heading. He is a saxophonist, traveling to join the rest of his band and play for the celebration of the town’s birthday. He invites the two women to come and listen to them play, and Wanda readily accepts.

Anna, of course, demurs. But when Wanda returns to their hotel room in the company of a man she has picked up at the bar, Anna gets back into her nun’s habit and hurries off into the night. There is nowhere in town to go, however, but the club in which the saxophonist and his band are playing, and so she shyly stands in the corner and listens to the music.

Eventually he joins her and they have a brief, quiet conversation, and it’s plain to see they are attracted to each other.

This part of the story is suggestive of the Amish practice of sending their young people out to sample the outside world and then letting them decide whether they want to remain there or return to the way of life and traditions of their own people.

But this is as far as I’m going to go with Anna’s story because it is too rich and too intense for me to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say this is a very European movie. Long, thoughtful pauses. Many quiet close-ups. Large winter forests with trees bearing only twigs. Dirt roads and poverty. And people with faces that haven’t changed in a thousand years.

Ida is embellished by a melancholy musical score that includes Mozart as well as John Coltrane. And best of all, the film is in black and white, which emphasizes the bleak tone and mood that makes the film a moving and haunting experience.

Ida is in limited release at the moment, but will open wide after the Oscars.

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