'Ida' takes an unlikely road to the Academy Awards

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Pawel Pawlikowski tried to make his film a flop. He shot it in black-and-white, in Polish and without any well-known actors. Commercial prospects were about as grim as the movie's own exhumation of German-occupied Poland.

"We did everything to make it inaccessible," says Pawlikowski. "Not for any stupid reasons, but, like, 'Let's make a really uncompromising film: a Polish-speaking film in black-and-white with nothing to lose.'"

And yet "Ida" has become arguably the foreign-film hit of the year. It won best picture and three other awards at the European Film Awards; it swept its native Polish Film Awards; it was honored as best foreign film by both New York and Los Angeles film critics groups; and now it's a two-time Oscar nominee, up for best foreign film and best cinematography.

"It backfired," Pawlikowski says with a delighted grin. "It confirms all my theories that I never believed in."

Despite his best efforts to make, he chuckles, "an impregnable art-house movie with unknowns," ''Ida" has mesmerized moviegoers around the world with its beautifully spare images, its deliberate pacing and its uncommon economy of storytelling. (It's just 82 minutes, or roughly half of a "Hobbit" movie.)

Set in 1961 Stalinist Poland, "Ida," written by English-born playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is about an orphan novice, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is sent to meet her judge aunt (Agata Kulesza) before taking her orders. It's a journey from innocent to experience: Anna learns her real name is Ida and that she's Jewish.

For many, "Ida" represents the power of a classical, stripped-down cinema, distilled back to its raw elements with electric compositions and resonate silences. David Denby of The New Yorker called the film "by far the best movie of the year" (a ranking admittedly shared by this critic).

"It strikes some bigger chord," says Pawlikowski. "People are hungry for something that doesn't do this kind of look-at-me noise-making. A film that's also a bit of a meditation."

In a recent interview, Pawlikowski, though hobbled by a cold, was both ebullient and bemused by the movie's unexpected success. "Ida" first premiered inauspiciously at 2013 Telluride Film Festival (one of the first trade reviews turned out to be one of the few negative ones) and the rollout wasn't aided by the usual funnels of international cinema. After the Venice Film Festival turned it down, "I thought to hell with festivals," says Pawlikowksi.

Instead, "Ida" slowly gathered force with moviegoers; the Oscars are just the final stop.

"I've overshot the mark so far," he laughs. "Now it's just abstract. Why not?"

Pawlikowski, 57, isn't a dyed-in-the-wool art-house filmmaker, and the witty, chatty director conveys little of the heavy austerity of his movie. His last film, "The Woman in the Fifth," set in Paris, starred Ethan Hawke and Kristen Scott Thomas. His acclaimed 2004 British drama, "My Summer Love," starred a then unknown Emily Blunt.

He's recently returned to Warsaw, which he left as a teenager. But Pawlikowski, who has two 20-something children, has mostly lived in London and Paris. He teaches directing and screenwriting in between sporadically making films. He calls himself "culturally incoherent."

"I'm not a full-time filmmaker," he says. "I live a life, a quite complicated life since I left Poland at 14 not speaking any other languages. Films are kind of a reflection of where I am at the time. I have to live for a bit and then make a film."

At a time when many filmmakers mistake running time for ambition, none of Pawlikowski's films have exceeded 90 minutes. He has, he says, "a natural tendency to synthesize." On "Ida" he was contracted to turn in a film at least 1½ hours long, but there were no quibbles when he came in shorter.

"I wanted to make a film where you suggest as much as possible by showing as little as possible," he says.

It's a homecoming. Pawlikowski has moved just down the block from where he grew up. The black-and-white, 4-by-3 academy ratio look of "Ida" was also inspired by old family photographs and what he calls their "slightly incompetent framing."

During production, he began tilting the camera up to the sky, filling the frame with gray skies and adding to the movie's vertical spiritual perspective. The original cinematographer, Ryszard Lenczewski, didn't like the idea, and left the film. The camera operator, Lukasz Zal, took over. (The two share in the Oscar nomination.)

The off-center images are part of why "Ida" is a very classical-looking film, but distinctly its own. It's nostalgic but fresh.

"Every year there are these films that make you step back and go, 'It's still alive,'" he says of a personal, handmade cinema. "But somebody has to keep it alive."


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