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Poland's Tumultuous History Never Straightforward In 'Ida'


Pawel Pawlikowski is a Polish filmmaker who gained international attention for his 2004 movie "My Summer Of Love." It's about two young women who spend an English summer together. It earned the British equivalent of an Oscar for best film and launched the career of actress Emily Blunt.

His latest movie is opening in the U.S. this weekend. It's called "Ida." And like "My Summer Of Love," it centers on two women. But as Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC reports, it couldn't be more different.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: The title character of "Ida" is a young woman in a remote convent about to take her final vows as a nun.

MOVSHOVITZ: But as Ida prepares for the ceremony, the mother superior tells her to take a few days and visit her aunt the city. When Ida arrives, her aunt greets her in a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette. A man in the bedroom's pulling on his pants. Within about a minute, the aunt says bluntly...


AGATA KULESZA: (As Wanda) (Foreign language spoken).

MOVSHOVITZ: ...So you're a Jewish nun?


KULESZA: (As Wanda) (Foreign language spoken).

MOVSHOVITZ: It turns out Ida's parents were Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and she was taken in by a Catholic priest when she was still a baby. Ida knows little of the complexities of life outside the convent. Her aunt drives them to the town where her family lived to learn more about how her parents died. But director and cowriter, Pawel Pawlikowski, says his story does not offer simple resolutions.

PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI: I think it should be a film where all the characters on screen have their reasons, even the farmer who did the horrible thing. I didn't want to demonize him either. I wanted to show that a kind of normal person could do that kind of thing in certain conditions. That's the sort of cinema I like.

And I've always tried to go against kind of journalistic shorthand of the world, you know, just try and muddy the waters, to show, hey, this is how history looks. It's never straightforward. If you were in that situation, think about how you'd behave, you know. I try to use film as a kind of mirror where you - crooked mirror, a bit - but where you can recognize yourself in it.

MAREK HALTOF: That's what makes certain films great, that aura of ambiguity. And he's able to maintain it until the very end.

MOVSHOVITZ: Marek Haltof teaches film and English at Northern Michigan University and has written several books about Polish cinema.

HALTOF: Unlike the majority of Polish films, this is not a thunderstorm. This is not an accusatory film. This is a different type of cinema - let's call it historical art -film that sounds like a powerful whisper.

MOVSHOVITZ: Haltof calls some of the images in "Ida" transcendental. The film was shot in black and white, and Pawel Pawlikowski says that's how he remembers that time. It's the early 1960s, when Poland had settled into a grim, repressive form of communism. Haltof points out that Ida's aunt had been a judge in the country's vicious Stalinist legal system.

HALTOF: This is the period when censorship returns with a vengeance, when the Roman Polanski, after making his first film in Poland, "Knife In The Water," moves to the west. And this is the beginning of jazz in Poland as well, which features so prominently in "Ida." So all the images, though the film is deprived of politics with a capital P, are there, but it's very nuanced. It's very subtle. And that's the beauty of this film.

MOVSHOVITZ: The title character has her eyes open, says filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski.

PAWLIKOWSKI: She encounters the communist present, the Nazi past, just human nature in action, people who've done things, who've done passionate things, who've committed crimes, who are erotically driven, just, you know, what Schopenhauer would describe as the will - people who are driven by the will as opposed to contemplation.

MOVSHOVITZ: "Ida" is the first film Pawlikowski's made in the country where he was born. He moved to England as a teenager, and most of his other films were made there. In 2008, his wife died, and he took time off to raise their two children. He shot his next film in Paris. With "Ida," he returned home.

PAWLIKOWSKI: Poland is a great place to invent stories and characters, and so I wanted to make a film in Poland. And that's that period. It's sort of haunting me somehow, you know, as I was very young. It had something do with my parents, with the landscapes of my childhood. I don't know.

I'm trying to simplify life in general, you know, so I'm also trying to simplify my filmmaking ambitions, you know. I just want to make films about stuff I can feel now and kind of reconnect with my country, which I haven't lived in for 30 years - over 30 years.

MOVSHOVITZ: What he found left him a little ambivalent.

PAWLIKOWSKI: It's a very competent nation to everybody's surprise, you know, because we always assume that we're kind of incompetent, you know. And it turns out we are quite good at capitalism and, you know, just sorting out problems. But this competence translated into cinema, it means, very often, just kind of predictability and coming in on budget and just being, you know, kind of very responsible, you know. And I think cinema should be irresponsible, and it should be done by mad people.

MOVSHOVITZ: Pawel Pawlikowski's not being completely serious, of course, but his film is. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.