The second season of the Scandinavian crime thriller The Bridge has just finished on SBS.
Though shot in colour, the bleak landscape of the Swedish and Danish scenery could easily make you feel you were watching a black-and-white production. Whether intended or just so different from an American, Australian or Western European backdrop was hard to pinpoint.
None of the main characters lived in austere circumstances and some were at the forefront of their societies, yet the viewer was provided a nearly monochrome effect in lands where sunshine seems infrequent.
Ida (2013) was filmed in black and white and it too could easily have been produced in colour but still have had a bleak look. Did director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski choose mono because his film is set in 1962 and deals with a back story of Nazi occupation in Poland during World War II? The black and white evoking a grey pastiche of what life had been like under fascist invaders and what it remained under Communist government?
Anna (Agata Trzebukowska) is an 18-year-old novitiate only weeks from taking her vows in a nunnery where she has lived since a small child. We first see her putting the finishing touches on a statue of Jesus Christ which she and her fellow novitiates carry to erect as a focal point of the nunnery’s garden.
Anna’s mother superior insists the girl must travel to see her only known relative, an aunt, before taking her vows. She reluctantly agrees, setting in train events that will prove shocking and uncover memories perhaps best left buried.
The aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza) has had nothing to do with Anna and leads a lifestyle of plentiful sex, alcohol and cigarettes, masking her work as a hanging judge loyal to the party during and since wartime. When Anna confronts her it appears Wanda still wants nothing to do with her but possibly guilt takes hold and she eventually seeks the young woman out to explain the family background.
It is here that Ida takes a turn. The young novitiate, about to become a bride of christ, is told she is a Jew, a descendant of those blamed by generations for his death. Anna’s real name is Ida and her parents went missing during the war. Wanda, who knows more about the background than she is letting on, agrees to take Ida to where her family once lived and possibly establish where they are buried.
Wanda and Ida become Thelma and Louise in a battered car driving on rutted roads into the Polish countryside. As the viewer begins to understand what Ida’s parents may have gone through at the hands of the Nazis, it becomes more clear they have succumbed to ‘friendly fire’ with their own neighbours turning on them for financial gain. Such is the life of the Jew. Sometimes they could avoid the enemy but not withstand the wrath or greed of their ‘friends’.
During the road trip, the two women encounter a sax player (Dawid Ogrodnik) who looms as a possible love interest for Ida and this provides a sidebar to the main story. While Ida wrestles gently with womanly thoughts, Wanda is being battered and bruised by memories she has stifled for nearly 20 years.
With a gruesome completion of what they set out to do, the two women part at the nunnery. Further events lead Anna/Ida back to the city where she attempts to replicate Wanda’s life choices, which prove disappointing. After making out with the musician she finds his take on their future so mundane as to confirm what she earlier knew – a life serving God is her destiny.
There has been little grappling with the Jewish v Catholic dilemma. Anna has buried the past – and presumably Ida – and walks with purpose towards the nunnery to take her vows.
A beautiful film, with characters often shot in the lower quadrants of the screen with plenty of space about them. The deliberate slowness of some scenes of sparse dialogue and limited action are most times accompanied by some incidental background movement – a storekeeper replaces stock; through a window, a man is seen parking his bike; a worker picks up a heavy tool.
Many of the frames could be still shots which become art in themselves, making Ida more than just a story but a film of rare beauty, austere and grey though it may be.