It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Debuted earlier this year at Lincoln Center and now on a national tour, the 21-film series "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema" bears stunning testament to the brilliance of not only one especially fecund national cinema but an entire era of moviemaking—call it the golden age of the art film. As Martin Scorsese, who curated the series and whose Film Foundation provided its pristine digital restorations, has remarked, the period it covers (roughly the ‘50s through the ‘70s) was one of extraordinary accomplishments in many parts of the cinematic world, a high-water mark that grows ever more dazzling in retrospect.
Set in the Poland of 1962 and composed of austerely gorgeous black and white images, Pawel Pawlikowski’s "Ida" could fit right into the "Masterpieces" series, evoking as it does films ranging from Andrzej Wajda’s "Innocent Sorcerers" to Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s "Mother Joan of the Angels" (both 1960). But that’s not to suggest it’s a throwback or an exercise in cinematic nostalgia. Riveting, original and breathtakingly accomplished on every level, "Ida" would be a masterpiece in any era, in any country.
Somewhat ironically, director and co-writer Pawlikowski can’t be considered a Polish filmmaker in any strict sense. Though born in Poland, he grew up in Great Britain and has done most of his work there (his previous films include "My Summer of Love" and "Last Resort"). "Ida" represents a return home for the filmmaker, one that he has said draws on the memories, sights and sounds of his childhood.
That retrospective, and somewhat impressionistic, viewpoint mirrors the film’s own. Though set in the '60s, the era of Communist rule and modernization, the story scripted by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz looks backward in time. Given that it starts out in a convent that seems like it hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, you might say that the film’s perspective suggests a vast expanse of Polish history. But its main focus is closer to hand: the country’s occupation by the Nazis (a historical passage that is resonantly evoked but never seen or directly referred to).