Sunday, November 16, 2014
Sister Ann, a mousey novice at a Polish convent, is about to take her vows when she is told that her aunt has asked to meet with her. In the past, the aunt has shown no interest in the orphaned girl. Sister Ann takes a street car through a dingy city to the apartment of her aunt. Ann seems to have never left the convent on her own and she looks out the street-car at the gloomy city with wide and apprehensive eyes. Ann's aunt is "red Wanda," a notorious Communist prosecutor and judge, now declining into alcoholism. "Red" Wanda chain-smokes, drinks vodka straight from the bottle, and picks up burly older men in the dismal taverns that she frequents. Pawel Pawlitkowki's 2014 film doesn't beat around the bush. Wanda, who looks grim and haggard, meets Sister Ann at the door in her frumpy house-coat -- in deep-focus in a room behind her, a man is putting on his pants. Wanda is sadistic and happy to tell Ann that she isn't even Catholic, that she's a Jew raised in the covent after her parents were murdered during World War Two. She taunts Ann, whose real name is Ida, and, then, for reasons that are never fully explained, takes her on a road trip to the desolate rural area where Ida's parents were killed. (The ostensible purpose for the trip is locate the place where Ida's parents were buried. But it's unclear why Wanda has waited this long to undertake this venture. My suspicion is that Wanda, in a last spasm of allegiance to the dying Communist regime, wants to distract Ida from becoming a nun -- although, Wanda seems disgusted by the filthy towns and her own complicity in Poland's misery, she also can't imagine a better future and, nihilistically, wants to subvert Ida's faith.) The two women motor around a spectacularly dismal-looking landscape, stopping at ramshackle farms and shabby gas stations; at one point, Ida kneels to pray at a shrine at a crossroads. All of this is filmed in elegantly composed and funereal black and white. The movie's compositions are designed so that the characters occupy the lower third of the film-frame -- the upper part of the image is usually just a grey sky or a blank, whitish void. At times, this device is mannered to the point that the faces of figure are cut off in their middles by the bottom of the frame. At a gloomy hotel where the women stay, there is a curious column in the lobby that extends upward but seems to have no structural function -- the column is like the pillar on which St,. Simeon Stylites exiled himself, a pedestal with nothing on top of it, and a pictorial correlate to the empty space extending up above the figures in the landscape. It's hard not to view these images, which comprise about half of the film, as pictures of a heaven that has been denied its transcendence, a void above the characters where the sky and God should be located. Ultimately, the two heroines descend into the earth, moving away from the heavens above, and root out the bones of their relatives. They go to another cemetery, just as desolate as the barren forest where they found the skeletons, and inter the remains. There is an abortive love story -- Ida spends the night with an alto saxophone player who the women have picked up while hitchhiking. Red Wanda commits suicide and Ida tries to drink and smoke, tottering on spike high heels to imitate to her aunt. At Wanda's funeral, someone plays a scratchy version of "The Internationale." We last see Ida walking toward the camera in a shot that lasts a long time, a sequence similar to scenes in Bela Tarr's films -- Tarr's influence is everywhere apparent in Ida. We have no idea where she is going. And the problem with the film is that the director doesn't know where she is going either. The film's characters are laconic and rarely speak. When they do speak, it's mostly in grunts and uncommunicative half-sentences. Since no one tells us or one another anything, we have to infer motivation from what we are shown. And what we are shown is austere, non-dramatic, people in landscapes or dirty-looking bars silently staring off into space -- imagery like Robert Bresson's more austere films, although cut to a quicker pace. Is the silence of the characters intrinsic to the situation or is it a mark of laziness (or a lack of confidence) on the part of the film maker? Red Wanda is such an interesting figure, and the performance embodying her is so stark and effective, that I would have liked to have heard much more from this character.. In an early scene, we see Wanda presiding over a tribunal that is considering the case of a malcontent who used a pre-communist saber to cut down a "socialist display" of flowers. The trial is meaningless and the lawyer's presentation maunders on in an irritating way, but Red Wanda's face is a study in indomitable, and grim, ferocity. She has sent people, as she says proudly to their death, "enemies of the State," as she calls them, but, now, she is judging a case involving cut flowers where the primary evidence seems to be the fact that sword used to decapitate the blooms was once owned by a Polish nationalist. What does she think of this? What are we to make of her mask of imperturbable, and indifferent, savagery? The film doesn't answer these questions and give us silence -- the silence of those empty skies -- instead.