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January 26, 2023

The abyssal history

The last Oscar for Best Foreign Film was won by the Polish film “Ida”, directed by  Pawel Pawlikowski. It is the latest acknowledgment after the film has already acquired a remarkable international career. How can this remarkable international career of the film be explained? “Ida” is first of all an exercise of aesthetic virtuosity, of a seductive cinematography, a black and white free of striking contrasts, grays intertwined with the finesse of lace, and the rhythm has some of the detachment of a contemplating eye, that maintains a level of non-involvement. It is, also, a portrait of a world undergoing a change, exiting the dark 50s in Socialist jazz rhythms, enjoying a fragile spring. Yet, perhaps the most interesting dimension of the film is another one. Besides the protagonist, a young orphan raised in a monastery, who must decide whether she has vocation to become a nun or not, her companion in a journey of “memories” is a powerful personality: a libertine aunt, authoritarian and free of any complexes, who had been an important magistrate during the first decade of aggressive Communism. The Jewish parents of the aspirant to monasticism had been murdered by a peasant during the years of War and of Antisemitic oppression by Nazi invaders, so that his family could occupy the house of the Jew couple, a house they still live in.

The aunt is aware of the role she has played herself in the institution of Communism, in the harshness of granted convictions, in the brutality of the political struggles she had been involved in. At the time of the story, she is already crushed – as a matter of fact, she will commit suicide – perhaps because she is already sensing the dawn of political change, that was to lead to a new wave of Antisemitism. Actually, this was the justification of her harshness as a magistrate: revenge against an era that made her lose her own son, murdered and buried in a forest, besides Ida’s parents, by a peasant whose family initially accepted to hide them. She had spared the life of the little girl by placing her in the monastery.

This thicket of family events is a hint to a wider history, with several types of protagonists: Nazi officers following a policy of exterminating Jews, “simple” Polish people who allowed themselves to be caught in Antisemitic actions, even murderous ones, out of ethnic hatred and / or material interest, targeting the property of Jews; Jews struggling to survive, who allied with the new Communist power, animated by revengeful pathos; Communists who decided to get rid of the influence Jews acquired in the new state. The circumstances reveal an abyssal history, that devours in a whirl motivations and actions connected by bonds that are difficult to analyze actually. Nobody can simply state that the magistrate woman revenged her butchered son by condemning to death or to endless years in prison the representatives of the old regime, who had contributed to the exacerbation of Antisemitism. This grants the genuine value of the film, as it illustrates a different perspective upon historical facts: human choices are based on a performance that was partly finished. Individuals are not the ones to establish the context of their own decisions, but they are caught in a whirl, and in a situation where they are not actually guilty of anything, they must assume the consequences of other people’s choices. Not even the young woman on the path to monasticism had ended up in the monastery as a result of her own choice; she had been raised there to be rescued, and the traumatic story of her past has been hidden of her due to a wish to protect her. It is not obvious why, after she finds out about her roots, after she spends a few days with her aunt experiencing the opposite to monastic asceticism and after spending a night of passion with a young man she has recently met, the protagonist returns to the monastery. Perhaps she is just rejecting a world she finds too brutal and deceitful. Perhaps she has the precocious revelation that most human aspirations are perishable. Or perhaps she just had got accustomed with an inclination to see the world with less passionate eyes. Out of all these reasons, “Ida” is a film destined to refine our understanding of historical causality. The options that are truly decisive on our lives are made in a context of restrictions and liberties that are not only in complicated and disarmingly inconsistent relations, but are also ineffable, the equivalent of an existential field that is much more demanding ethically.



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