Ida (2013, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski)
I am glad I saw this movie alone, three stories underground in the middle of the part of Buenos Aires that looks like Manhattan. I needed that kind of isolation, to walk home in the slight chill for half an hour afterwards, to have the Spanish around me suddenly sound foreign so I could be alone with it for a while. I have the feeling it would have felt solitary regardless.
Ida is the story of a teenage novice, raised in the convent, who finds out the week before her vows that she is the daughter of a Jewish family murdered by Christian neighbors during the war. She and her aunt, a former Communist judge and the only other member of the family to survive the war, embark on a road trip to repatriate her parents’ bones to a Jewish cemetery.
It takes teenage girls, people of faith, history, memory, and religious life seriously. It avoids nunsploitation and condescension. But it didn’t just tick my soapboxes, it completely stabbed me in the heart. And, looking at that plot, of course it did.
I came at this movie with all my own issues about religious life based on lies, which is maybe why it felt so honest to me where it felt open-ended to others. Its photographically stunning starkness — black and white, spacious, sharp — looks how that experience feels, turning the world enormous and heavy. Its allowance for worldly experience, only to turn back to the convent, speaks to the intense ambivalence of discernment (and especially of young vocations) between sacrifice and complacency. (What do your vows mean if you know nothing of what you are giving up? And do they constitute lazy fear once you do?) Its refusal to get inside the nun’s head, to reveal intense emotion amidst an already overwhelming personal plot, rings true to the rehearsed silence and lifelong interiority that kind of background instills. Convent walls make you pale but they don’t make you translucent.
But of course, this girl is subject to very specific forces and histories, things I know nothing of — and that almost hit it home even more for me. My Polish family is the only part of my family I don’t know. We stopped talking two generations back but that didn’t stop the little inheritances. A habitual holiday dessert, a particular patron saint, a family name. It is there and not, like the country itself, it takes turns being occupied by one narrative or another. I have always felt this need to learn the language, to know the place, to resurrect that imagined identity. I think because I imagine a sort of affinity with its history: broken betweenness like mine. In reality it has very little to do with me at all and has just become this place of imagining for all of the things about me I don’t understand. So watching this nun fail to conjure the weight of her lost identity felt true to me. It does not produce guilt, exactly, except in the sense of feeling less than you expect.
The real pain here is not discovering a stolen identity, but facing the crimes of a dearly held one. Her parents’ murderers ask her to bless their child; “I know I can trust you, Sister.” She is newly capable of shame. Everything is haunted by enormous Christian crime and she wears it as a uniform.
But she — and her aunt, surprisingly — are not after any particular justice or revenge. Their attitude toward memory is the one I have always instinctively shared: it just seeks acknowledgement. It seeks repatriation of bones.
And so when that comes to pass, she takes a moment to feel it. She tries on her aunt’s habits and ends up putting her own back on when she is through. It can feel like she has buried herself with her parents: her Jewishness, her belonging to a family, her belonging to the world. And maybe she has. But to me it feels honest. She has acknowledged, she has reburied — it is not as if bones can stay fresh above ground. Injustice was always going to be done.
But then, I didn’t need her to exhibit survivor’s guilt, to feel bad about coming of age in a time of peace. There is little joy in being “saved” from situations that should not have existed in the first place, but there is also little expiation in being aware that you own what has happened to you. It feels like a weight, this decision on how to go about memory and loss, and so any decision feels like a victory. I could have been happy with almost any ending to this movie. I would have understood if she married the hitchhiking saxophonist, if she renounced Catholicism, if she burned her habit, if she took up Hebrew, if she fled into the distance, if she didn’t care at all. I was ready to forgive her anything because I reject prescribed narratives of pain. We carry it as we must.
I haven’t called her Ida, which is the name she was given at birth. The movie doesn’t really, either. Ida is nowhere to be found. The aunt and the niece jointly try to forge her, but she is an almostness that died with her parents. So little is visibly left of this pain: her parents’ house has been taken up by their murderers, her family is dead, she is soon to have her name changed by yet another mother. Ida doesn’t lament this destruction and it doesn’t call it liberation either. It just snaps a picture of it. And I needed to see that so I could explain it to others. This is how this feels. It feels like the enormity of decision, more than history; it feels like erasure, more than liberation. It feels like anything but freedom and it makes enclosure seem more honest.
Photographs from The North American Indian, a 20-volume work published between 1907 and 1930, filled with over 1,500 photographs as well as records of tribal lore and history, biographical sketches, and descriptions of traditional foods, housing, clothing, ceremonies, and customs. American photographer Edward S. Curtis wanted to capture all he could before it vanished. The pictures cover almost all of the USA, even the ice along the Arctic Ocean and the desert border with Mexico. While painting an idealized picture, Curtis’ images also contrasted with the public’s perception of Native Americans as impediments to be moved off useful land.
Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Cementerio de la Recoleta
Buenos Aires, Argentina
29 August 2014
Tú me quieres alba,
Me quieres de espumas,
Me quieres de nácar.
Que sea azucena
Sobre todas, casta.
De perfume tenue.
Entonces, buen hombre,
La casa del ángel
dir. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1957
When I sat down to watch a black-and-white movie from 1957 in 360p on YouTube for my Argentine film class, I didn’t expect to be particularly emotionally affected. The scene wasn’t exactly set. And though I got lost in their Italianate accents, the dreamlike camera movements, and the scarcely drawn characters, I felt a great deal. This movie is sad but not in the way it is supposed to be. It goes on and on about repressive Catholic sexual morality, a social class at its tapering, this supposedly tragic unraveling of a supposedly tragic status quo. But that is not its sadness. That is barely even its intention.
No, what kills me about this thing is its starkness. Even in a tale of expected liberation and romance, where the repressed girl looks to be right to disobey, where a happy ending of righteously dueled honor and love-at-first-sight turned wedding looks possible once free from religious expectation, even in that then-revolutionary trajectory, everything ends in violation. The girl who allows herself to feel love and attraction, who reclaims joy, who does not accept her caretaker’s witchlike musings on hell, is not wanted freely. The man wants to take her, and he does. And she has no one to believe anymore. The forbidden romance felt right, the forced intimacy undeniably wrong.
Everyone is a repressor and the rulemakers are right and wrong at the same time: it’s the fifties in Argentina and moral confidence is not an option anymore.
That level of resignation to a moral abyss of female pain is not what I expected out of seventy-six minutes in our tiny Recoleta library. And it’s not what they expected in that Cannes cinema of only thirty vaguely curious spectators in 1957, either.
(1) Street scene at twilight, Centro Habana, 2009
(2) Street scene near the Marché de Fer, Cap-Haïtien, Haiti; 2012
(3) Saturday night on Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2013
Ida in an Interior with Piano (1901). Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864-1916). Oil on canvas.
The piano, normally associated with room-filling sound, stands silent in the stillness, the player’s stool empty. Ida appears absorbed in her handiwork or reading, concealed by the side table. The painting is a ‘symphony’ in white and grey, the whole illuminated by the soft directional light from the window as in the paintings of Vermeer which Hammershøi so admired.
Things I love about Buenos Aires: the cafes. There’s nothing like stopping by to have a cup of coffee before night classes or after them or before going to a morning meeting at work in one of these cafés porteños. I love the classy waiter in white uniform greeting me with a smile, I love the pessimist comments of the old men in the table next to mine, always talking about the economy and the shitty politics, I love seeing the group of old lady friends getting together at 5 o’ clock to celebrate with their friends having outlasted their husbands another day. I love sitting in old wooden chairs that have probably seen my grandparents’ asses flirting with each other back in the forties.
i can’t wait to shamelessly force my sports teams into my children’s hearts
(but for real every time my cousins buy their kids lil football jerseys it just makes my heart soar) (Y’ALL)
New poem in brand spanking new mag. Footnotes + pop punk and good book quotes = “On The Subway - For John Bartlett,” page 55-56.
PREACH Mr. Hanks!
No kidding. And not that the cost should matter, but it’s not like this is economically unreasonable. World Cup athletes play on grass, for pete’s sake.