Ida, transcendence, history

9 03 2015

ida

The film’s 1.37 aspect ratio is crucial, as it emphasizes vertical length. We’re used to interpreting film images horizontally, so Ida can be an exercise in visual disorientation. Compositions are not only “tall,” but decentered. Characters sometimes occupy the bottom third of the screen, with the upper two-thirds filled with negative space. This is crucial in a movie about transcendence: spiritual and historical. We’re made to look upwards, above the protagonists’ heads, at what’s beyond them. They are part of an inexplicably larger whole, in both existential and sociopolitical terms. History can be as mysterious and bottomless as God, though efforts to understand it are nevertheless necessary, like a believer must struggle to come closer to his or her deity.

Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn are literary takes on similar themes (especially the former, which shares more than a few plot points with Ida): on the slipperiness of History, on the need to recall those things which others have forgotten. His approach is more essayistic, however. Whereas Ida forgoes historical exposition, Sebald recovers the past through research, returns to the sources. There is no turning back time, but things survive: pictures, films, documents, buildings. Pathways across decades and centuries are opened up by remaining materials. Memories can be stirred by paving stones. In Ida, meanwhile, there are voices and testimonies, often ambiguous. The material, when unearthed, only has meaning because of what is said about it. This has earned the film some controversy. Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, calls the movie unbearably, even dangerously vague. And in Poland, some have claimed, from both the right and the left, that it reinforces distortions of Polish history.

These are fair concerns. The film focuses on a small, local narrative, which is not meant to represent or convey History. Its minimalism works against generalization, and its protagonists – a novitiate nun who discovers her Jewish past and her aunt, a Communist judge and former WWII resistance fighter – are not “everywomen,” but peculiar, specific people. At the margins of the narrative, as argued in the above article by Filip Mazurczak, are other kinds of Jewish characters and Poles, who react differently to Nazi occupation and subsequent Communism. Individuals don’t experience History, but their own histories. The question, then, is whether a film should be true to this incomplete experience, even though it might be at odds with History, or whether it should transcend the characters, move beyond their point-of-view. In Ida, the negative space signals a continent where neither film nor protagonists can go, where there might be full historical and spiritual understanding. Sebald, it seems, has a more conciliatory answer: his books are about fragmentary individual experience, but their protagonists, as historians and academics, nevertheless try to investigate beyond themselves, even when their attempts to explicate History are driven by personal trauma.

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