Serious HABITS

Last year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film was Ida, the first Polish entry to be so honored. This year, French film The Innocents may be nominated in the same category and may well win. Both are remarkable, sharing similar subjects and settings, though quite different in approach. In each case, though, the result is profoundly moving and memorable.

Set in 1960s Poland, Ida is the story of young orphaned novice Ida (Agata Kulesza) who, about to take her vows to become a nun, is told by the Mother Abbess she must first meet with her aunt, of whose existence Ida was unaware. Traveling to the city, Ida learns from her Aunt Wanda (Agata Trzebuchowska) that she’s actually Jewish, her parents and brother murdered during the German occupation, along with Wanda’s infant son.

With her cynical, hard-drinking and promiscuous aunt, a Resistance fighter during the war and a stern judge for the People’s Court under the Soviet regime, Ida travels to her one-time family home to try to recover her family’s remains. The journey to their shared past is revelatory and transformative for the women, though in quite different ways.

Filmed in stark but stunning black-and-white, Ida is visually and thematically engrossing. Besides its Best Picture Oscar, it was also nominated for Best Cinematography, a highly unusual nod for a foreign film, but understandable in this case. The film’s compositions often frame its characters, particularly Ida, in a diminutive or uncentered position in regard to setting and environment. The story is about individuals nearly subsumed by their environment.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski created a masterpiece of nuance and intelligence that challenges interpretation as much as it evokes emotion. Both actresses, particularly the younger Kulesza, are simply unforgettable, their characters more imbued by their presence and gestures than by dialogue.

The final scene evokes Truffaut’s famous conclusion to The 400 Blows, in which a long tracking shot follows his adolescent rebel as he runs to an ambiguous confrontation with an uncertain future. Ida’s future might seem even more dubious to some viewers, but her experiences have been more profound than Truffaut’s young hero, and this time the camera precedes and faces her on the long path she has chosen.

Certainly provocative and open to interpretation, Pawlikowski’s ending seems far more affirmative to me than not. Still, like Ida as a whole, it’s beautiful and unforgettable.

The Innocents, taking a different approach to a similarly themed subject, is just as memorable, though far less nuanced. Based on true events, the story focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a young French doctor with the Red Cross in Soviet-occupied Poland in December 1945, and her efforts to aid nuns in a nearby convent, many of whom have become pregnant after being raped by invading Russian soldiers.

Unlike Ida, the French film (directed by Anne Fontaine) focuses on several different thematic dilemmas arising from various characters’ conflicting beliefs and cultural backgrounds. Committed to aiding the unfortunate women, Mathilde must first overcome their shame and reluctance to expose themselves to physical examination and possible scandal. Then there’s the real problem of what to do with the babies, which leads to two of the film’s most excruciating and exultant moments.

The Innocents has more characters, and so explores in more complicated variations the conflict between religious faith and secular humanism — a key component of Ida. In The Innocents, the reluctant nuns must decide whether to allow help from Mathilde’s Jewish colleague. Moreover, there’s the abiding question of God’s will and the existence of obvious evil.

Two of the very best films I’ve seen this past year, Ida and The Innocents are testaments to the power of the human spirit and the role of cinema as art as well as entertainment.