'Ida' keeps history at arm's length

Matt Pais movie review: 'Ida'

'Ida'

'Ida' (May 16, 2014)

** (out of four)

Like a disappointing, minimal adaptation of a great novel, “Ida” (which isn’t actually based on a book) turns what should have been a complex mystery into a simple question and answer.

The 1960s-set film from Polish director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”) watches as Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) meets her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), just prior to taking her vows as a nun. Wanda’s the opposite of Anna: Outgoing and somewhat desperate, she drinks, smokes and sleeps around. In an American remake, she might be played by Allison Janney (think of her role in “The Way, Way Back”). Wanda and Anna set out to discover how Anna’s parents died and where they’re buried. You’d think this would be a complicated effort full of significant events and meaningful scenes. It’s not. The two spend a bunch of time waiting around; eventually we witness the tears and regret of a character we barely know.

Some have complimented the black-and-white “Ida” for its efficiency. At 78 minutes, it does get started and stay on track economically. Yet the film provides only basic cause-and-effect with little connection to the past. Anna learns that her given name was Ida and that she’s Jewish; of course this would affect a conservative woman about to become a nun. But we have no sense of how shakeable her faith may be. “Ida” takes place only in the ‘60s; while a movie that discusses the Holocaust doesn’t always need to extensively depict those horrors, “Ida” unjustly minimizes the past.

Pawlikowski evokes a lingering sense of guilt, of history looming over the present. There’s no doubt that humanity runs the spectrum from beauty to tragedy. But the filmmaker also holds back, so it’s difficult to gauge the characters’ emotional evolution. And for a film suggesting we often may not know what we’re missing, it’s a shame for “Ida” to be treated as a classic just because it looks like one on the surface.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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