Ida (2013)

Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida, which deals with a young woman’s journey towards becoming a nun, is of the most beautiful films ever made.

idaPoland
4*

Director:
Paweł Pawlikowski 

Screenwriters:
Paweł Pawlikowski

Rebecca Lenkiewiczi
Directors of Photography:
Łukasz Żal

Ryszard Lenczewski

Running time: 80 minutes

With Ida, Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski may have created one of the most visually stunning motion pictures of all time. Harking back to the era of Carl Theodor Dreyer, one of the film’s main themes – religion – finds expression in the beautiful whites and blacks of the images, most of which are presented by means of static camera positions.

In the early 1960s in Poland, a young redhead nun named Anna, who grew up in a convent, is preparing to take her vows. But before she does that, her prioress asks her to visit her aunt, Wanda, whom she hasn’t seen for most of her life. Anna is reluctant to head out into the sinful world outside the nunnery, but she does as she is asked to do. In a moment of incredible candour, Wanda announces to Anna that she was born of Jewish parents (her real name is Ida Lebenstein) and sent to the convent because at the time of her birth Jews were being hunted down in Nazi-controlled Poland.

Wanda is a former state prosecutor who once got the nickname “Bloody Wanda” for her role in sending enemies of the socialist state to their deaths. It has been a long time sincethe Second World War, but although she doesn’t talk about it much, and we only glean tiny bits of information from her about her family’s life in hiding, it is an event that clearly took a toll on her, and along with Ida she tries to locate the remains of her sister and brother-in-law, among others.

The investigation is simple but leads to the introverted Ida coming face to face with the evils of the world. Her exposure to the life led by her more free-spirited aunt, who spends many a night with a different man in her bedroom, also attunes her to alternative ways of behaving (in other words, black and white turn slightly grey) that will significantly influence her way of thinking by the end of the film. This change is made visible in her arrival and departure from the city of Łódź, where Wanda lives, which is shown with a static shot of her arriving on the tram, and a lateral tracking shot that shows her leaving the city toward the end.

The world depicted is one of intense religious affiliation, and God’s blessings are mentioned in nearly every greeting between friends and strangers. However, always in the background, are the events of the Second World War, and the staggering injustices suffered by such a large part of the Polish population. The film moves at a leisurely pace, with scenes stripped down to their essential parts, even if those parts often mostly consist of silence.

We never feel that things are moving too slowly, but surprisingly the fragments of the final act seem disjointed, and the film moves too quickly from one scene to the next, often without explaining how characters got certain kinds of important information and how they respond to them.

The investigation in the present has as much to do with unveiling the past and getting at historical truths, painful as they might be, as it is about the veiled Ida’s quest (albeit one she is indifferent to at first) to find the truth within and about herself. She grew up a Catholic, always surrounded by the nuns of the convent, and it may not appear that her birth into a Jewish family is worth exploring, but she soon finds herself no longer able to ignore the circumstances under which she was torn from her family – an act that led to the point where she finds herself in the present.

The process is presented without any sentimentality or melodrama; on the contrary, things happen with very little fanfare, but there cannot be any doubt that Ida is affected by the discoveries she makes and the world she encounters, where she continues to believe in God despite all the misery of her earliest days on the planet. Whatever your view of religion, Ida is a character with integrity. She faces her struggles in silence but not with a mere shrug of the shoulders. And Pawlikowski’s gorgeous film is a very worthy modern-day addition to the canon of films dealing with religious subjects.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

In a Bedroom (2012)

In a BedroomPoland

2.5*
Director:
Tomasz Wasilewski
Screenwriter:
Tomasz Wasilewski
Director of Photogaphy:
Marcin Martinez Swystun

Running time: 72 minutes

Original title: W sypialni

Not to be confused with the striking, New England-set 2002 masterpiece In the Bedroomdirected by Todd Field, the Polish In a Bedroom is a film that seems determined to gives us too little information every step of the way, using jump cuts not to create a sense of energy or rhythm but rather repetitive ellipses that quickly become tiresome and render the action uninvolving.

Edyta is a call girl who finds men over the Internet, but at their homes she drugs them and either takes their money or their food, or uses their out-of-town wife’s face cream. She doesn’t seem to have any particularly villainous intentions, but the reason she behaves this way is left unexplained until late in the film.

In the meantime, her anxious demeanour — which Tomasz Wasilewski conveys well enough and even manages to transfer to the viewer in a minimalistic but well-crafted scene taking place at a supermarket, where Edyta surreptitiously eats and drinks without paying — often makes her seem like she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and yet we know not why. Until she takes her first drag of a joint and immediately spills her secret: She has a son, somewhere, doing something, and she is not a part of his life, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Let’s not say anything important,” she asks Patryk, a very nice young man in whose company she spends the second half of the film. Her involvement with him starts off in a sequence so fragmented and opaque, we simply cannot root for them to be happy together, because so much information has been withheld. We meet Patryk for the first time when he knocks on the bathroom door, where Edyta has taken refuge while waiting for her date-rape drug to take effect.

But this moment comes at the end of a mysterious yet interesting sequence of moments in which we see her — always wearing the same dress — next to or close to men sleeping on their beds next to her, and once, bizarrely, dressed in a towel, next to a woman on a couch in the living room, whom she tries to wake her up. We don’t know whether these moments are real or not, but they end with the brutal intrusion of Patryk.

Such brutal intrusions occur from time to time, and Wasilewski is adept at using them to both utilise an emotion generated by his story and present it in a way we were not expecting. One example is when Patryk is on the phone to a friend who may  have located his brother Bartek. He slams down the phone, and when he looks up, he notices Edyta around the corner, who has been eavesdropping. Instead of screaming at her, the cut to him in the rough seas, the camera loudly bobbing up and down in the water to the rhythm of his shortness of breath on the soundtrack, is a very good transition, but the scene lasts only a few seconds, and we don’t know when this takes place or even whether Edyta accompanied him to the beach.

The film is set in Warsaw, though Edyta is from Gdynia, and her being out of place is certainly significant, although we too frequently lack the detail to understand her behaviour or her desires. The camera is handheld but only slightly unsteady, which creates an unease that is difficult to pinpoint at first but a very good decision on the part of Wasilewski and director of photography Marcin Martinez Swystun.

The main problem In a Bedroom has is its presentation: The editing sometimes makes it seem this is only half a film, and all the interesting bits that connect the different shots and would have created a more cohesive narrative have been excised. The uneasiness this creates is of course the goal of the director, but for a viewer who knows very little about the central character and is saddled with her compulsive lying, we cannot even guess that what she says when she seems to be honest is in fact the truth, a fact that continues to alienate us until the very end.

This may be one of the most prudish hookers we’ve seen since Fellini’s Cabiria, but while a character arc would have helped us immensely to understand how she feels when she does this job, the disjointed narrative comprising wholly disconnected moments does little to inspire any kind of empathy, especially when she rejects the care of good Samaritans. A moment in an Internet café, when she is speaking to a potential client but we cannot hear the other person, is gorgeous, because it emphasises her utter loneliness, but in the end, the lack of empathy we have for a character whom we cannot understand and who does little to confront the pain and sadness in her own life except to keep running is not interesting at all.

In Darkness (2011)

In DarknessPoland

3.5*
Director:
Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter:
David F. Shamoon
Director of Photography:
Jolanta Dylewska

Running time: 145 minutes

Original title: W ciemności

Films about the Holocaust are important because they remind us what tragedy is possible when people turn against each other in struggles of religion, power and race. Having firmly established the misery and the hardship of the events that took place, though, many filmmakers are unfortunately tempted by the subject matter to tell stories that are not very distinct from the ones that came before.

Schindler’s List is by far the best-known film about oppression during World War II, but the story about an ethnic German who saved hundreds of Jews by employing them in his factories in Moravia and not letting them be deported to the concentration camps was criticized by Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-hour documentary, Shoah, is filled with interviews of those who suffered through the events of the time.

A major criticism is that such stories of salvation can blind the viewer to the ensemble of despair that hung over the Jewish population across Europe at the time. However, while this is an important point to make, that does not mean the films themselves only have to be doom and gloom from beginning to end.

Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella) was very successful in its presentation of a father who, to keep his son entertained and not expose him to the horrors of war, pretended the concentration camp was a theatre and they were all only playing parts.

On the other hand, the extraordinary Hungarian film Fateless (Sorstalanság) had as its central character a teenage boy on the verge of adulthood who doesn’t understand everything that is happening to him, his friends and his family, but for whom the experience of being sent to Buchenwald and spending his time with other prisoners was not at all terrible, despite his near-death, because the enduring support of everyone in the camp was so strong.

The Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland doesn’t bring much new to the screen with In Darkness, her telling of the real-life story of a group of Jews in Lwów in eastern Poland (what is today Lviv in Ukraine) who were saved by a sewer worker called Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) who kept them underground, away from harm, for 14 months during the war.

Holland has churned out impressive films in the past, most notable among them 1990’s Europa Europa, which focused on Nazi-occupied Poland, sometimes with evident irony, and the ordeal of a fair-haired Jewish boy who pretends he is German (or Aryan) in order to survive. She was also behind the formidable 2012 miniseries Burning Bush (Hořící keř), which examined how slowly the wheels of history turned after the 1969 self-immolation of the Czechoslovak Jan Palach in opposition to the Soviet invasion of Prague a few months earlier.

In Darkness’s presentation of a man who starts off demanding money from those he hides deep down in the sewer system, but eventually grows fond of the people and sees it as his duty to protect them from the authorities — some of whom are very good acquaintances from before the war — really doesn’t offer a fresh perspective or a new twist on Oskar Schindler’s story.

Socha is patrolling the sewers with a friend when they find a group of Jews escaping their ghetto shortly before it is razed to the ground. He accepts their bribe and helps them to a safe area inside the vast system of underground tunnels filled with rats and the smell of putrefaction.

The central premise is strong, as viewers will almost certainly ask themselves whether they would do the same thing in such a situation, but the story of people who betray their Jewish neighbours for the sake of a handout — in this film a mere 500 złoty — has been told many times before in as many countries as have made Holocaust films.

Though the viewer can easily respect this man, it remains a bit of a mystery why (despite his objections that the Jews only whine about their circumstances and do not appreciate all that he is doing to protect them) he risks his life to save them.

What Holland and screenwriter David F. Shamoon do succeed in conveying is not the grand spectacle of life under oppression, but the human dimension of people being stuck together in a small space with little food and fresh water and with no certainty about their future. In Darkness contains some beautiful moments of realization on the part of a character who understands that there can be unexpected goodness in another person, and it is these rare glimpses of unadulterated humanity that make the film engaging. There are also a number of scenes that make it clear what the characters feel and how frustrated they are by living in such close quarters with people they either despise or lust after.

This is a film that would have had more power if it had not been so similar to so many others. Shoah’s Lanzmann decried Holocaust stories that had a happy ending, and even though we see dead bodies in this film, it was made to examine the characters themselves rather than the situation above ground. In Darkness is technically accomplished, and it does have moments of real human emotion effectively communicated, but mostly it doesn’t offer any kind of fresh perspective on Jewish hardship under the Nazis, and that means that ultimately the film lacks real punch.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Sexmission (1984)

SexmissionPoland

4*
Director:
Juliusz Machulski
Screenwriters:
Juliusz Machulski
Jolanta Hartwig
Pavel Hajný
Director of Photography:
Jerzy Łukaszewicz

Original title: Seksmisja

Running time: 116 minutes

This Polish film from the early 1980s is at times hilarious and very often terribly kitsch but can also be rather uncomfortable given the basic plot of a chauvinist protagonist facing off against feminism run wild in 2044.

Opening in 1991 with the arrival of a doctor whose one hand is limp and covered by a glove (the Dr. Strangelove reference cannot be by accident), named Dr. Kuppelweiser, it is said that cryogenesis has developed to a point where an experiment is feasible. Two men, the overweight and bombastic Maksymilian and the slim, more bookish Albert, leave their loved ones behind in the name of science and are scheduled to return three years later.

But plans don’t always work out the way we expect them to, and they wake up in 2044 in a world without any men — a “lesbian utopia” where reproduction is accomplished through asexual parthenogenesis, and any deviations (i.e. men) from the ideal are scheduled for naturalization, through which they will become female.

Maksymilian and Albert are certainly not in the mood to have their sex changed, and Maksymilian start hatching a plan to seduce the female population en masse. His thinking, rarely questioned by the filmmaker, is that women need men and men need women. And yet, there is a revolutionary underground force of women who like to experiment with each other (a scene that exhilarates the two men) and many of the powerful women give off lesbian vibes.

But leaving director Machulski’s confused contemplation of gender equality aside for a moment, it is important to note the film as a slightly subversive record of its time. While never as overtly satirical as Stanisław Bareja’s Miś, another Polish classic from 1981, there are moments when we can see Machulski making light of the political situation in Poland in the 1980s while at the same time underlining its seriousness.

An obvious example is Maksymilian’s realisation that, by sleeping for 53 years, he missed out completely on getting his long-awaited flat from the government in 1998. While it may not seem like such a big deal, since he was frozen in 1991, the film itself was released in 1984, and many Polish viewers would have viewed the year 1998 in that context, in other words a wait of 14 years.

But another example is more opaque, as it is tied to the film’s very foundation. It provides a moment reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village when, towards the end, we discover that things on Earth are not really quite as bad as the all-female population have led themselves to believe, and in fact the major players are only pretending to safeguard lower-ranking members in order to maintain control. This power they exert in order not to lose control is actually very easily comparable to the regime of the Communist Party of the time, and the lies that are told about life outside the confines of their bubble can be equated to lies (or exaggerations) told about the West.

In these final scenes, a revelation is also made about the existence of a cross-dresser that narrowly escapes labelling as transgenderphobic. Jerzy Stuhr, who plays the slightly heavy-set Maksymilian, at one point goes on a kissing rampage in the all-female world, which causes many women to pass out. This reaction is for comical effect, but also creates the impression that women and men necessarily need each other for sexual satisfaction. And when the one woman is revealed to be a man, the psychological effect of pretending to be something you are not is not addressed at all; instead, there is a substantial assumption that things will immediately go back to normal and he will simply “be a man”.

Sexmission is more about comedy that about filmmaking. The images are often a mess, following no particular point of view or sequence, and in on particular shot the focus is racked completely out of sync with the actions it seeks to highlight. The story is lighthearted and easy to enjoy, and the young blond girl who is the principal guardian of Maksymilian and Albert in the future, Lamia Reno, is particularly effective as a strong woman whose sexuality makes her more amenable to sexual persuasion. Students of feminism will have a field day tearing the film apart, and for most 21st-century viewers the film will also provide its share of uncomfortable moments, though Machulski is not entirely indifferent to man’s negative influence on the world, as is made clear when we learn wars and venereal diseases are a thing of the past thanks to the extinction of man.

Why Competitions (2011)

Poland / Germany

4.5*
Director:
Christine Jezior
Screenwriters:
Christine Jezior
Oskar Jezior
Directors of Photography:
Phillip Kaminiak
Theo Solnik

Running time: 78 minutes

Original title: Dlaczego konkurs

Ivo Pogorelić thinks a lot of himself. In 1980, after an unconventionally spirited performance at the revered International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, this young Yugoslavian pianist was eliminated from the contest – upon this announcement, members of the jury, including world-renowned pianist and former winner of the competition, Martha Argerich, resigned in protest. He became a sensation overnight and achieved much greater fame than the eventual winner of the competition that year, Đặng Thái Sơn.

The title asks (though without the question mark — Robert Zemeckis once remarked that no film ending in a question mark has ever done well at the box office, and therefore his own, very successful, Who Framed Roger Rabbit omitted this punctuation mark) what purpose these kinds of music competitions serve and the experts that are interviewed have very different opinions. Most of them agree, and point to Pogorelić’s subsequent career, that competitions do not ensure success for the winner. Of course, his case is a little different from the context of the other performers every year, and the film also looks at a range of other pianists to examine the validity of the experts’ statements.

Why Competitions is an insightful document of the world of competitive piano playing: using the quinquennial Chopin competition in Warsaw as a starting point, the filmmaker interviews all the major players, including many jurors past and present, and tries to piece together the varying opinions about and reactions to the jury’s decision in 1980. The film also looks at the decision in 1975 to award the first prize to the young Pole, Krystian Zimerman, instead of the Russian players who would receive the second, third and fourth prizes.

From these conversations with the different pianists, a range of political issues arises, for example we learn that Russian players, whatever their accomplishments at the competition, would not be allowed to perform outside the USSR afterwards. In the meantime, another player from outside the country – even Poland’s Zimerman – would have the opportunity to play around the world and establish a great career.

The human dimension of the jurors is also underlined and pianist Jeffrey Swann makes a very valid point when he states that the current system of points allows jurors to punish more than it rewards: A maximum of 25 points may be awarded, and often the jurors would give 16 or 17, but if they want to make a point by punishing a player because of style of appearance or whatever, they could give 0 (as happened with Pogorelić and many others), effectively ending that individual’s chances of going through to the next round. Lidia Grychtołówna, who is both a pianist and a juror, makes a similar point when she acknowledges: “At competitions, both candidates and jurors make mistakes. The difference is that jurors go unpunished.”

The more general question of the need for juries and competitions is also treated to some screen time, and Jeffrey Swann is particularly amused by the fact that he received 25 from one judge, while another gave him 0. The possible political motivations behind such decisions are cited, but one juror, Kazimierz Kord, warns us not to read too much into the disconnect between the audience’s reaction and the judges’ reaction to a piece: “Sometimes the public will applaud a performance anyway, even if they don’t understand the requirements [for interpreting Chopin].” I found this statement a little condescending, though perhaps well-intentioned.

But time and again the film comes back to the very vain, pouting Pogorelić, stroking a small dog on his lap, who claims that people are envious of his beauty and his talent, and while some might debate the latter, his claim that he is beautiful (or rather, “well-preserved […] Look: no wrinkles!”) will certainly generate some laughter. The only slightly frustrating part of the film was the otherwise agreeable Kevin Kenner who speaks for a long time in very American-inflected German before finally switching to his more natural mother tongue of English. I also would have preferred to see more of Martha Argerich, who contributes a single sentence to the discussion, or Krystian Zimerman, who is completely absent from the film.

Why Competitions manages to cram a lot of political, social and historical commentary into its 85 minutes and does so with a sense of rhythm and storytelling that is truly breathtaking, and without ever using a voice-over or explanatory text. It is a film whose theme is universal and whose specifics are always interesting.

A must-see.

Viewed at the Jihlava International Film Festival 2011