Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears

The Infidel


The Infidel

Omed Djalili spontaneously breaks out into a rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

(2010) Comedy (Tribeca) Omid Djalili, Richard Schiff, Archie Panjabi, Igal Naor, Mina Anwar, Amit Shah, Soraya Radford, Miranda Hart, Matt Lucas, James Floyd, Leah Fatania, Ravin Ganatra, Bhasker Patel, Michele Austin, Rod Silvers. Directed by Josh Appignanesi

The variety and scope of cultural diversity among humans is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it gives us so many different viewpoints about the human condition; a curse in that it divides us more than unites us, causes suspicion and violence. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle east.

In that case, it is religion that divides – Muslim and Jew. Each suspicious of the other, each determined to protect themselves in the name of their religion, meaning that if the other one dies, so be it.

Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) is a Muslim living in London. He’s not one of the fundamentalist sorts, but more of a loose, moderate sort – he doesn’t always follow the ways of the Koran to the letter in other words. His son Rashid (Shah) is in love with Uzma (Radford) whose mother has just married Arshad El-Masri (Naor), a fundamentalist fireball whose politics Mahmud doesn’t particularly agree with. He’d much rather watch old videos of the deceased ’80s pop legend Gary Page (Floyd) but since his son needs him to be an ultra-Muslim to impress his prospective father-in-law, Mahmud is willing to do it.

Then, while cleaning out his late mother’s house, he finds some disturbing news. It turns out his mother wasn’t his birth mother – he was adopted. Some digging results in further distress – it turns out that Mahmud was born to a Jewish family and his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz.  I think finding out your name is Solly Shimshillewitz might be distressing to anyone.

A little bit ashamed and scared of what it would mean if his family found out, Mahmud at first hides his newfound background but curious about his heritage, he seeks a neighbor, an American Jewish cabdriver named Lenny (Schiff) to find out more about his Jewishness. Lenny teaches him a few things, like how to say “Oy vay!” and how to dance like Topol. I’m sure the JDL didn’t have any objections to any of those stereotypes.

In the meantime he gets caught up in trying to hide his new identity from his family and friends and to hide his old identity from his new friends. When he gets caught out as you know he has to, he stands to lose everything – including his identity.

This British film has gotten a fair amount of praise in both critical and film festival circles, although it got only a cursory release here in the States. One has to give the filmmakers props for tackling such a sensitive, hot-button issue in the way that they did.

However, good intentions aside, not everything works here. Some of the jokes are simply put, not that funny. The ending, which is a bit out of left field, weakens the movie overall and was a bit of a disappointment. However, the movie works a very good percentage of the time.

Djalili is best known to American audiences as the prison warden in The Mummy (who meets a pretty nasty end) but is better known in Britain as a stand-up comic (he performed for “Comic Relief” in 2004) and his act often contains bits about his life as an Anglo-Iranian, growing up in a Persian household in Britain. He is certainly well-suited for the role and is thoroughly likable in it.

It’s not a bad movie, but it isn’t as good as it might have been either. It’s got enough laughs to make it worth your while, but not enough to inspire a more than cursory search for it. It’s one of those in-between movies that has merit enough to recommend it, but not enough to really praise it. If you have the opportunity to see it, by all means do. I just wouldn’t make a lot of effort to seek it out.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting insights about cultural differences. Very funny when it works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the humor is a bit broad and the ending is a little bit false.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few F bombs but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While BBC Films helped develop the script, they withdrew from further involvement after the Andrew Sachs/Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal made the Beeb somewhat sensitive to any material that might be even a little offensive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and what the filmmakers call “bonus jokes” which are essentially deleted scenes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information unavailable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: New Year’s Eve