“Ida” at the Avalon – Not a Good Review

The reviews for Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film “Ida” have been virtually all positive.  In fact, on Rotten Tomatoes, “Ida” gets a 94% positive review from critics (and a 79% rating from audiences).  A number of people had recommended it.  So why didn’t I like it?

Filmed last year, but set in Poland in the early 1960s, “Ida” is the story of a young novitiate in a Polish convent, raised in the convent’s orphanage, and about to take her vows to become a full fledged nun.  The mother superior of the convent insists that before she does so, Ida should meet her one living relative, her aunt, her mother’s sister.  Ida travels from the convent to the big city, and knocks on the door of her aunt’s apartment.  Her aunt, it turns out, is a nont-quite-middle-aged, alcoholic, worn out former prosecutor, now a judge, who barely can keep her life together.  She is depressed, looking for a “good time” and constantly drinking and smoking.  A danger to herself and society and – beyond that – an exceeding unpleasant, unfriendly and rude person.

But her aunt tells Ida something that she didn’t know before.  For one thing, she didn’t know her name was Ida – she thought it was Anna.  More importantly, she had no idea that she was Jewish and that her parents and her cousin (her aunt’s son) were killed in the Holocaust.

They start on a search to the village (not called a shtetl) where the family lived and they go to the family house, contacting the owner and asking about his father’s whereabouts.  They believe that the father killed all of their relatives, and they want to find their bones and give them a proper burial. Which they (sort of) do.  (You learn, by the way, that Ida was just a baby when she was given to a local priest to hide, but you never know how the aunt survived the war years.)

So, it’s part road trip, part descent into alcoholic hell.  Both Anna and her aunt are from time to time in a daze.  The Poland that is presented is grayer than gray, older than old, poorer than poor, and exceedingly unpleasant.

Oh yes, there is some romance – they pick up a hitchhiking saxophone player who likes John Coltrane and take him to his gig in a town where they are staying, and he falls in love with Ida.  Her aunt, meantime, winds up with whomever is available.

I am not going to give away the entire story line, but will (SPOILER ALERT) say, as do many of the reviewers, that in the end Ida decides to go back to the convent.  Hard to blame her, perhaps, since Poland seems so unappealing.  But why does she do it?  Does she see it as providing her with opportunities?  Does she see it as an escape from the world.  Does she do it out of religious conviction?  Does she feel at all Jewish?  Or Christian?  Or anything else?  Is she too nervous to go out into a world she does not know?  Will she change her mind in another 48 hours?

You can’t answer any of these questions, because the film gives you no clue.  And this is part of the problem.  The plot is simplistic.  The characters are vacuous and one dimensional.  The message is hidden.

None of this negativity comes through in virtually any of the reviews.  (The St. Louis Post Dispatch did not like the film.)  It didn’t even come across in the reviews that I saw in the Jewish press, where you would think that someone would comment on the crass portrayal of the aunt, the lack of Jewish feeling in the Jewish Ida, or the decision of Ida to go back to the convent.  A Polish Holocaust film where the central Jewish character chooses Christianity (I have nothing against Christianity) over Judaism (or even atheism) somehow offends me – I liken it to those who put up the large cross across the street from the Auschwitz camp.  But no one else seems to notice this (and I have no reason to think that Pawlikowski is trying to offend – he is a liberal, and the grandson of a Jewish woman killed in the Holocaust).

Oh, well, I obviously expected something different.  And I didn’t get it.

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