Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (2014)


If there have been institutions more maligned in film than the Church and the iron curtain, they can’t have been by much. It’s one of the few things that religion and communism have in common in this world, and it ends up making for a sublime road movie in Pawel Pawlikowski’s black & white, full frame Ida.

The Ida of the title (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice nun who was orphaned during the war and who is on the verge of taking her vows. It’s the winter of 1962 and she has barely been beyond the walls of the convent she was delivered to as a baby when she is abruptly sent by the Mother Superior to see her last remaining family member, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who would not take custody of her once the war was over.

Wanda is a Party judge, a severe and sharp woman who looks completely defeated by life by the time we meet her. The photo album she shows Ida — full of pictures of the family before the war, even photos of a very young Ida — does seem to spark her somewhat, but there is so much pain buried behind the photos that it doesn’t last.

Piqued by the photos, Ida wishes to visit the family’s home town and see the graves of her parents once before she returns to the convent and takes her vows. In the end though, this is a World War II story, and nothing is pretty and neat. Her parents have no graves, Wanda tells her. The family is Jewish and was betrayed by neighbors who had been helping to hide them.

Ida, maybe partly from naivety, is undeterred in her wish and the two set off to the country knowing the potentially destructive power of what they might find.

Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is a revelation as Ida. It’s an unassuming, quiet role, one that requires that she spend most of the film covered in a habit, but it doesn’t hold her back in the slightest. She smolders under her coif, giving a teasing, knowing performance where less is more, doling out hints to a much richer inner life than one might imagine from the outside. It’s remarkably assured and minimalistic, not at all kind of performance you expect from a first time actress.

As her travel partner, Agata Kulesza has a more traditional repressed role, but expresses it with aplomb at every step. The pair are at their best when Wanda asks Ida if she has sinful thoughts. The smirk that Trzebuchowska delivers is playful and devastating you want to bonk her on the head with an Oscar for it.

The stark black & white cinematography is gorgeous, conveying the coldness of the scene and Ida and Wanda’s emotional states perfectly. It’s something that the full frame aspect ratio helps with as well. I haven’t been a fan of the reemergence of full frame photography, but something about it here is so fitting that I can’t find fault with it. It almost gives the film a sense of being in a time machine, as if the film were actually shot in the 1960s when the wounds of the war were still fresh and just starting to scab over. In a film full of opposites in an orbit of attraction and repulsion, it helps adjust our focus. It’s a declaration that Pawlikowski doesn’t want to waste our time, and he doesn’t.

Dogma – Kevin Smith (1999)

God is all knowing and infallible. Whether in Catholic school, CCD, or just from your parents, you are taught that at an early age. As a kid, I imagined God as an invisible man looking over my shoulder at everything I did. Everything. God was ever present, all knowing, and, hopefully, approving. He didn’t take sabbaticals to go to the Jersey Shore and play pinball.

Did he?

Did she?

In Kevin Smith’s Dogma, God does, and apparently is not all knowing, allowing himself (Bud Cort) to be jumped by demonic triplets wielding hockey sticks, thus falling into a coma.

Two banished angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), mean to exploit this absence. Years before, they had been sent by an angry God to suffer for the rest of time in Wisconsin. Needless to say, they’ve grown tired of the Cheesehead state, but more than that, they’ve grown tired of seeing these lesser being — humans — treated with favor by God. Together, with the guidance of Azrael (Jason Lee), they set out for a New Jersey church to exploit a loophole in dogmatic law and make their way back into Heaven.

Religion has always been a wonderful foil for comedy, and none better to poke fun at than Catholicism, who, even with the late rash of evangelical gay sex scandals, still deserves it the most. The film’s main conceit is that man is essentially the flaw in God’s plan. It riffs on the biggest pain in the ass in the history of religious pains in the ass: indulgences. They were one of Martin Luther’s main sticking points in the 1500s, so this isn’t exactly new, but a clever spin on an old problem, though it is more stupidity that causes the ill will here than greed.

The powers that be in Heaven have, of course, caught wind of this plan and have sent the Metatron (Alan Rickman) to rally troops to stop them. Enter Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic; Rufus (Chris Rock), the black 13th apostle who is pissed about being written out of the Bible; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse-slash-stripper; and Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith), the lost New Jersey prophets.

As the motley crew crosses the country they are chased by the hockey stick wielding triplets, and the ever-popular rubber poop monster (voiced by Ethan Suplee), but mostly they just get in their own way. Bethany’s crisis of faith, especially, is something that holds them back. It’s something she just can’t get past, despite having been visited by, you know, an angel — the angel, even. I suppose it’s natural to be suspicious when the help you are given come in the form of Jay and Silent Bob, though, who themselves are wondering why they haven’t yet prophesized anything.

It turns to be not so cut and dry for Bartleby and Loki though. Having been banished to Earth for eternity by God, should they pass through the gates of the Holy Mother Church, a loophole in biblical dogma would have proved God wrong by readmitting the two rogue angels, thus obliterating all existence. It’s exactly what Azrael, another muse who was banished to hell for draft dodging, is banking on. Hell is apparently worse than Wisconsin. I always thought it was a tie.

But despite the 500 year old, well essayed problem, the film exudes and undeniable freshness, and that is entirely down to the equal measures of playfulness and authority in Kevin Smith’s writing. There has never quite been a film like this, and I don’t think there ever will be again (thanks to its box office numbers). Regardless, his jokes are spot on, topical and unflinchingly in the know.

That was, I think, the main problem with Red State. Smith didn’t live in that culture, so it doesn’t ring as authentic. But he grew up in the same kind of Irish-Catholic household that I did, right down to the clueless priests trying to make Catholicism cool for kids and teenagers. He has Cardinal Glick and the Buddy Christ; I had cool Father F**** (I don’t want to out the guy since Google has plenty of articles on him — no, not those kinds of articles) and the Catholic magician whose name I’ve since stamped out of my memory. Still, it amounts to the same thing in the end. Catholicism has more problems than solutions, has made more mistakes than goodness, and is often too aloof to bear, but it makes a lifelong mark on anyone its comes into contact with, whether they like it or not. Like I said, though, it’s a biased view. To me, every joke in the film works both as a joke and as a skewer. Red State didn’t get the joke or the skewer right.

More than a religious document, though, Dogma is a road movie with a stoner comedy flair. Religion is just its topic, not its genre. And it’s such a smart and candid film. It was a growth spurt in filmmaking balls by Smith, one that bears its puny-muscled action set piece muscle with its tongue planted as firmly in its cheek as during it’s comedy set pieces. I’m not sure what happened to Kevin Smith from then until now. His life changed during Dogma, I guess, when he met his wife and started a family. He mellowed, or just stopped being the kid he was. He’s thrown a lot of darts at the board since, and most have ended up somewhere in the wall outside of the board.

I suppose it’s just that some directors have a shelf life. The long distance filmmakers, like Scorsese or Spielberg or Ford, are the anomalies, not the rule. How many of those indie wave filmmakers are still around? Even Tarantino has waned somewhat. Sundance isn’t so kind when it comes to longevity. You can only tell the same jokes for so long before you need new material, and going from stoner comedies to the more adult themes Smith was experiencing in his life just didn’t find the spark it needed when it came to filmmaking.

Red State – Kevin Smith (2011)

It’s hard to recall a movie that’s more confrontational than Red State. Both the film itself – a damning portrait of a super-strict cultist religion based on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church – and its director began the journey to the screen in a highly combative spirit. Most of what Smith himself has done reeks of a wounded ego after his last film, Cop Out, faced a severe critical drubbing that he still has not recovered from. I suspect many of us would have the same lingering issues to deal with if we faced such harsh criticism, but Smith, like Elizabeth Wurtzel or Sarah Palin, brings much of it on himself through his outspoken Twitter feed and podcasts in a time when the people have a more powerful voice than the ones with the megaphone.

But to spend too much time on that is to miss the point, perhaps. There is a film on the line here, and a new distribution model is being tested. It’s a film and distribution model we’ve been hearing about for years through the hard road that Red State faced to get financed, both due to its religious content, and how much of a departure it is from its director’s previous work.

Different may be an understatement: There is very little in the way of an authorial stamp to Red State beyond the sex jokes that it kicks off with, and the religious trickery at its conclusion. But those jokes are generic, far removed from the gasping-for-breath hilarity of Clerks or Chasing Amy, and the trickery in comparison to Smith’s Dogma.

That Matt Damon-starring firestarter was the charming story of two morons, the black 13th apostle and a Catholic girl with a shortage of faith who try to stop two rogue angels from destroying the world by proving God wrong. It came with an authenticity, a confidence and a certain playfulness. But Smith grew up a good Catholic boy in New Jersey, so that was in his nature. Red State, about an extreme anti-gay protestant splinter group that loves guns (and, apparently, knitting), is a foreign concept to most rational people, Smith included. Where Dogma had wit and insight built on a lifetime of thought, Red State has an outsider’s kneejerk reaction to a sick cult, one that slowly devolves into caricature by film’s end, rendering it a wholly useless take on the subject.

The film is essentially more of a Waco or Ruby Ridge story than it is a Westboro Baptist Church commentary. After luring in several victims (led by Michael Angarano as Travis) with the promise of sex, the congregation proceeds to drug and cage them. They execute a gay man who is wrapped in plastic in order to, it seems, keep his gay blood from touching their altar. The escalation of violence is a somewhat abrupt turn from the light beginning of kids looking to get laid via computer, but it’s not wholly unexpected. From there, it’s something of a race against time for the three remaining victims to escape the heavily fortified compound before the ATF, led by a totally wasted John Goodman performance, lays siege to the building.

The churchy segment starts off strong, with Michael Parks (as homophobic madman mastermind Pastor Abin Cooper) stealing the film with a 20 minute-long sermon that outlines the ethos and venom of the church’s faith. Aside from that, however, very little about this thing works. It’s not insightful or funny. The story is betrayed right off the bat by a stunningly weak script, something that’s normally Smith’s strong suit, and weak direction that doesn’t know what to do with its stars, including Melissa Leo. Red State lacks focus and clarity, has no real point of view, and if you buy a second of the climax, I’ve got a bridge and some magical beans to sell you.

The distribution model – a road tour followed by VOD availability and a limited theatrical release – may work for Smith, but he’s spent almost 20 years now building up a fairly loyal fan base (including this writer). So, like Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead or Joe Swanberg’s big idea, this kind of self-distribution can work for him, but it won’t be the kind of “revolution for the little guy” that was promised. You have to have a name and the sellable personality to match to get away with this kind of thing, and if he has nothing else in life, Smith has exactly that.