Pawel Pawlikowski, the Polish-born filmmaker with Catholic and Jewish roots, said a conversation with a journalist friend a decade ago sparked an idea that grew into an Oscar-contending movie. His friend told him about Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Polish priest who discovers as an adult that he is really a Jew whose doomed parents had given him to a childless Polish Catholic couple.
“What a fascinating story,” thought Pawlikowski, who had left his homeland as a teenager and grew up in England. But he didn’t know what to do with it. “I put it aside,” he said.
Eventually, he decided to turn the priest into a young woman — saved from the Holocaust by the Church — about to take her vows to become a nun. Then he put the idea aside again.
Finally, inspired by a woman he met in England who had been a state prosecutor in communist-era Poland, the idea jelled. Pawlikowski would create a character with the prosecutor’s woman’s background who would be the novitiate’s aunt, her only living relative.
The result, “Ida,” an 82-minute film Pawlikowski co-wrote with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, has won dozens of awards in Europe and is a favorite to take home the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the Feb. 22 ceremony.
Set in 1962 Poland, the film is shot in black-and-white. Agata Trzebuchowska, who portrays Ida, has no acting experience; she’s a philosophy student, discovered reading a book in a café. Ida is opaque, quiet, showing few visible emotions.
When Pawlikowski told friends that he was making a black-and-white film with a Polish-language production company, and with an unknown actress, they termed the effort “professional suicide.” The director himself said he knew that raising money for the film would be “a very tough sell,” but he pressed on.
“It became a very personal film,” he said on a recent afternoon, sitting in a conference room of a Chelsea film distribution office. At 57, Pawlikowski is a believing Catholic. He has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and speaks in virtually accent-free English.
“Ida” depicts the era in which he grew up and the fate that he had learned about in Polish schools of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles under Nazi occupation.
“Ida” is not a Jewish film; it’s not about the Holocaust or Jewish-Polish relations. “There isn’t a message,” Pawlikowski said. It’s simply a story “about specific, very complicated characters.”
He cast Trezebuchowska, who has received wide acclaim for her performance, after unsuccessfully auditioning more than 400 experienced actresses. After his veteran cinematographer left the production because of illness, Pawlikowski recruited inexperienced Lukasz Zal; “Ida” has also received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. When Pawlikowski needed a writing break during production, a record snowfall made the time-off necessary.
One beneficial coincidence after another. “Things work out … if you have a good heart,” he said.
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“Ida” has engendered some criticism. It doesn’t offer historical background about Poland’s victimhood at the hands of the Nazis, say nationalists who call the film “anti-Polish.” And some Jews, the director said, complain that Ida doesn’t embrace her Jewish side in the end.
A film with a limited storyline is likely to upset some viewers, he said. “People see it though their own prism.”
What will follow “Ida?”
Pawlikowski said he is weighing three ideas. “I’m waiting for one of them to drag me along,” he said.