Would-be nun's Holocaust history

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Ida (M). Director: Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza. 80 minutes

Circle the block from the Classic Cinemas in Elsternwick, and halfway you'll encounter a horror wrought in bronze. This suburb in Melbourne's south-east has a large Jewish population, and so it seems a natural home for the Jewish Holocaust Centre — part education centre, part museum and part memorial to vast 20th century trauma. Andrew Rogers' silicon bronze sculpture Pillars of Witness, which flanks the entrance to the centre, solidifies this trauma.

The peaks of these slender monoliths are cast as reaching, tortured limbs or tortuous razor wire. The lower sections are studded with panels that depict in ghastly detail the sites of trauma: urban spaces invaded by Nazi villains; concentration camps bursting with degraded humanity; mass graves dense with wasted torsos and limbs. In one scenario, a man kneels at the lip of such a grave, as a Nazi trains a gun at the back of his head.

So vivid is Rogers' depiction — the weary resignation of the victim, the cool, determined stance of his assailant, the insouciance of the soldiers gathered in the background, their expressions captured on moulded bronze faces half the size of your fingernail — that the observer tenses in anticipation of the gunshot, and of the sight of the man's corpse tumbling down to join the hundreds of other nameless corpses in the pit below.

Take a breath, bow your head, and return to the Classic, where today's screening is Ida. This Polish film holds the horrors of the Holocaust close in its recent memory (it is set in 1962), yet maintains an elegant stillness that resonates with the frozen chaos of Rogers' panels. Lukasz Zal's tranquil black-and-white cinematography is beautifully composed, belying the tumult of history and identity that ebbs beneath the surface.

If Ida's cinematic still waters run deep, that can equally be said of the central character (Trzebuchowska), an 18-year-old novice who, on the eve of taking her vows as a nun, discovers that she is Jewish. Trzebuchowska's large, expressive eyes pour emotion from an otherwise opaque expression.

Keep an eye on those eyes to fully appreciate the transformation the pious but naïve orphan Ida undergoes as she discovers her roots and seeks to, literally, uncover the bones of her past. And just try not to think about Rogers' mass graves as Ida encounters the smaller but no less horrifying reality of her own family history.

Ida's companion on this journey is Wanda (Kulesza), her estranged aunt, a former Communist state prosecutor with blood on her hands. Wanda is world-weary, a drinker, and promiscuous. She has plunged into the vices of the world that Ida would reject should she continue in her vocation. These two very different women meet on the common ground of their shared history. It is debatable to what extent each is improved by the experience.

Yet surely it is better to grasp the bones of truth than walk in pious ignorance past the mass graves of history. For Ida, in particular, truth and experience amount to authenticity, and lend the weight of choice (rather than simply destiny) to the path that she ultimately chooses to take.

Post script: The Classic Cinemas is so close to the Jewish Holocaust Centre that visitors to both venues might be breathing the same air. It therefore seems like a comfortable, spritual home for the Melboure leg of the Jewish International Film Festival, which next month will premier Ida along with other contemporary Jewish films.

Yet it seems equally appropriate that the Sydney leg will take place in Bondi, a stone's throw from the site of last weekend's anti-semitic violence. If the remembrance of bleak history can breed solidarity among those who share that history, perhaps it can equally help to overcome hostility and prejudice borne of difference.


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street. The Jewish International Film Festival will run at Event Cinemas, Bondi Junction, Sydney from 30 October–17 November, and at the Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick, Melbourne from 6–24 November.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, jewish international film festival, Ida, Holocaust, Elsternwick


 

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Existing comments

Third last paragraph,. first sentence. Nice line Tim. I willl be sure to attribute it if I ever have cause to use it.
Tony Kerin | 31 October 2013


Yes, that first line of the third last paragraph if I have understood Tony correctly, is well worth attributing in more than one sense.
How easy is it for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
L Newington | 31 December 2013


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