Polish émigrés were not exactly thick on the commons of Oxford in the early 1980s when Pawel Pawlowski was there doing post-graduate studies in German literature. So when the Warsaw-born student, who'd left Poland at 14 in 1971 after his divorced mother married an Englishman, encountered a Polish-speaking Marxist economist beneath the university's gleaming spires, the two soon struck up a friendship. The economist's wife also was Polish – "a lovely old lady," as Pawlowski tells it, "who cooked and told stories and was the soul of the party and very sweet and very wise. I really liked her and they invited me home quite a bit."
Pawlowski offered the reminiscence during an interview at last year's Toronto International Film Festival by way of explaining the wellsprings of his latest directorial effort, Ida. The feature, a world premiere that won best picture honours from the foreign critics attending TIFF, begins its long-anticipated Canadian theatrical release this weekend in Toronto.
"Maybe seven years later," he continued, as the communist regime in Poland crumbled, "I heard on the news that the Polish government was asking for her extradition, on grounds of crimes against humanity. This sweet old lady," Pawlikowski chuckled, "had been a Stalinist prosecutor in the early 1950s and actually engineered the deaths of completely innocent people."
By the late eighties, newly embarked on what would prove an illustrious career, first as an award-winning documentarian, then as a feature filmmaker (Last Resort, My Summer of Love), Pawlikowski thought the woman's story might make a good documentary. However, she died soon after the news broke, thereby avoiding extradition. Still, "this idea of one woman being two different people in one lifetime stuck" with the director. So did another "obsession," that of a Catholic Pole, born before or during the Second World War, who discovers he is, in fact, Jewish. Highly alchemized versions of these two characters have found their way into Ida (pronounced Ee-dah), for which Pawlikowski co-wrote the screenplay.
Originally, Pawlikowski saw the Catholic/Jew as a priest. "But then I thought it would be more interesting if the character is a young girl, a nun, in the early sixties, who hasn't quite yet discovered life." Thus, we now have the titular protagonist (Agata Trzebuchowska, the reincarnation of Vermeer's girl with a pearl earring), a novitiate on the cusp of taking final vows, being commanded by her Mother Superior to meet the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, unabashedly promiscuous aunt she never knew she had – and a high-ranking communist to boot (Agata Kulesza). Virgin and "whore" then go on a journey, physical and existential, personal and political.
It's an austere, solemn film that feels much longer than its 80-minute running time. It's also beautiful to look at, a luminous suite of greys, blacks and whites. Much has been made of Pawlikowski's decision to use a nearly square image format and to hunker much of the film's action near the bottom of the frame. Pawlikowski thinks there's nothing especially "radical" about this format; it was quite common, in fact, up until 50 years ago, certainly in 1962 when Ida is set. "It's also the format of a lot of the photographs in my family albums."
More audacious to Pawlikowski's mind is the utter lack of camera movement until the film's final minutes. Coupled with the hunkered-down action, this conveys "the feeling of being stuck somewhere, boxed-in, a feeling that life has cornered you in a world of limited dynamism, of vulnerability." Pawlikowski acknowledged he was only five when the events of Ida unfold – but he's long had an interest in the Poland of that time, as it shrugged off the worst of Stalinism and developed a taste for the cheesy pop and exalted jazz (Coltrane!) of the West. "The look of the film just felt right, y'know?"
With the exception of stays in Germany, Italy and France, Pawlikowski's adult life has been spent mostly in Britain. But last spring, after casting and shooting Ida in Poland (a first in his feature-film career), he decided to move back to his homeland, to the very Warsaw neighbourhood, in fact, in which he was a school child and where his casting director found "Ida" waitressing in a cafe. "It feels good; it feels like home but not in any sentimental way," he said. "It seems to be the one country which I don't look at from the outside and judge."
Pawlikowski also intends to make more movies there, although not right away. At the time of this interview, he wanted to "regroup a little bit. Some directors need to make a film to feel alive. But for me, life is a place which is really difficult to get right," he said. "Also, I feel you have to live a while, then have a film to make. I'm not the kind of filmmaker who makes films about films. All [my films] are quite grounded in my life, I admit, but I don't want to screw up that life for the sake of films. I want to live for a while in the breaks, y'know?"
Ida is now playing commercially in Toronto and will screen in other Canadian centres throughout the spring and summer.