Ida opens at Landmark’s Albany Twin on Friday, May 23
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida opens at Landmark’s Albany Twin on Friday, May 23

‘Ida:’ Beautifully shot, slow burner of a movie

From the dramatic (The Nun’s Story) to the comedic (Bedazzled), from the sacred (Black Narcissus) to the profane (any movie made in the 1970s with the word ‘nun’ in the title), Brides of Christ was a reliable cinema staple for decades. Alas, it has fallen on hard times recently, with 2008’s Doubt being the last really good nun movie we’ve had – until now!

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), Ida (opening at Landmark’s Albany Twin on Friday, May 23) is a gorgeously shot black-and-white tone poem about the travails of a Polish novitiate nun during the 1960s. It’s the first time expatriate Pawlikowski — who’s primarily worked in Britain since his student days at Oxford – has shot a film in his native land, and the result is impressive.

Residing in a secluded Polish nunnery, Anna (wide-eyed newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is only weeks away from taking her vows. Her plans, however, come to a halt when Mother Superior informs her that a request – or, more likely, a demand – has been received asking Anna to visit her aunt and only living relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a judge and Communist Party apparatchik who has some family secrets to share with her estranged niece. The big revelations: Anna is Jewish, her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and her family perished during World War II and its members were buried deep in the woods of rural Poland.

Embarking on a journey in search of the remains – which they hope to return to the family plot in Lublin — Wanda and Anna/Ida uncomfortably get to know each other on the road, the “little saint” being exposed to worldly wickedness by her aunt, a self-described “slut” not at all shy about her appetite for booze, cigarettes and men. A chance meeting with hitchhiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) offers further temptation for Anna, who distressingly finds herself attracted to the handsome young Coltrane enthusiast.

Shot in rich monochrome by frequent Pawlikowski collaborator Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida is deeply evocative of time and place, strongly reminiscent of Polish and East German films of the ’60s, and features spot-on period detail. A slow-burner about faith and politics, punctuated by a conclusion that seems as surprising as it is predictable, it’s a film that won’t raise your pulse rate but will keep you on the edge of your kneeling rail.

Footnote: Ida features what I can best describe as ‘floating’ subtitles. Foreign film buffs are probably familiar with the problem – primarily seen in black and white films — of poorly contrasting subtitles set against light backgrounds and rendered all but illegible. Ida avoids that problem by shifting subtitles as necessary to the darkest part of the frame – bottom, middle, or top. It’s vaguely disconcerting at first, but I’m surprised no one thought of trying it before now.

‘Breastmilk:’ Candid, blunt, eye-opening

Dana Ben-Ari’s new documentary Breastmilk, opens at the New Parkway in Oakland on May 23
Dana Ben-Ari’s new documentary Breastmilk, opens at the New Parkway in Oakland on May 23

Confessions of an National Health Service bottle baby: breastfeeding was never in the picture for me, but it’s still the preferred option for most mothers. If you can put up with some vaguely pretentious New Yorkers, you’ll learn an awful lot about it from Dana Ben-Ari’s new documentary Breastmilk, opening at the New Parkway in Oakland on May 23 (at present, the film is not slated for a Berkeley run). Candid and blunt, the film addresses societal hopes and fears about lactation, helping explain my own terror of scrambled eggs in the process.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...