Why the matter of liking ‘Ida’ should not be political

If you saw ‘Ida’ and never even thought it was a politically incorrect and offensive movie then it means you can truly appreciate good cinema and enjoy it without prejudice.

We Poles, tend to bad-mouth our national cinematography in general. In many cases we are justified in doing so, since what we have been recently observing is nothing but a gigantic wave of overwhelmingly silly but not even slightly funny comedies (always starring the same actors), violent action movies and pretentious dramas about the pain of living. Among them Paweł Pawlikowski’s ‘Ida’ is one of the very few exceptions. It is a terse, remarkably charming movie set in Poland in the 1960s. It tells the story of a young Catholic nun, orphaned as an infant during World War II, who has to meet her aunt – the only living relative of hers and a member of the communist party. The two women encounter each other and go together on a trip in order to find the place where the whole family was buried. Unexpectedly they both have to deal with people and information which will change their lives forever.

‘Ida’ brought up a few important, but still afflicting issues with the most sensitive one being the behaviour of many Poles towards the Jews under the German occupation. This topic has already been present in Polish media discourse many times, previously after the release of books by the Polish-American historian and sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross. He is an author of works on anti-Semitism in Poland: ‘Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne’ (2001), ‘Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz’ (2006) and ‘Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust’ (2012), all three having caused huge controversies in Poland, especially among right-wing politicians. What many people cannot deal with is the accusation that Poles also participated in persecution of the Jews and any single mention of it makes them furious. Probably if ‘Ida’ was not a well acclaimed, Oscar and BAFTA winning movie, this subplot would be unnoticed.

Despite its international success at numerous festivals, this film has to win one more battle. It is challenged by the Polish complexes and the eternal conviction of the general unfairness towards Poland. After many years of constant struggles to bring to people’s attention the issue of German Nazi concentration camps in Poland (often by default taken as ‘Polish concentration camps’), Polish politicians wish to maintain the image of Poles as the good ones. As they were shown, for example, in the movie ‘The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler’ about the Polish activist, who saved over 2500 children during World War II. ‘Ida’ with its ‘anti-Polish’ overtone is putting a spoke in our wheel.

At the same time ‘Ida’ is telling a beautiful, sanguine story, which has become rare in international, mainstream cinema. Probably that, not the historical and political background (which in fact, is not easy to comprehend for an average foreign viewer), is the cornerstone of the success of Pawlikowski’s movie. The director himself is not a radical, politically involved person, rather a good observer of human personalities and emotions, which he has already proven in his previous works: ‘Last Resort’, ‘The Woman in the Fifth’ and ‘My Summer of Love’. With the success of ‘Ida’ he has become the trademark and the first ambassador of Polish cinema abroad.

Undoubtedly ‘Ida’ is a giant step forward for Polish cinema. The film’s international success needs to be a reason to be proud for all Poles, no matter whether they liked the plot or they did not. The efforts to minimise Paweł Pawlikowski’s triumph are at this point pointless and they painfully reveal our national vices and complexes.

Piotr P.

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