Two Jewish Films You Shouldn't Miss: “Ida” and “Félix and Meira”

February 3, 2015Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Two new award-winning foreign language films examine identity, faith, and family through the lens of improbable relationships that lead to fateful choices. Ida, set in 1962 Communist Poland, and Félix and Meira, set in contemporary Montreal.

(Polish with English subtitles)

The Mother Superior summons Ida, a young novitiate about to take her vows, and tells her she must first travel to Lodz to meet her only living relative. Her aunt, a once-powerful public prosecutor known as "Red Wanda" who is now a self-declared "nobody" receives her guest coldly and wastes no time in telling her that she is a Jew: "So you are a Jewish nun," she teases. Prone to drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, Wanda's first impulse is to send the "little saint," as she calls her, back to the convent. Wanda then has a change of heart, and the two take a road trip to the village where Ida's parents lived during the Nazi occupation. There, as they search for the man who killed Ida's parents, Ida learns that, as an infant, she was spared and delivered to a priest. After discovering the truth about her origins and for a short time literally living in Wanda's shoes, Ida must decide whether to embrace a new life or return to the one she has always known.

Ida was co-written and directed by London-based Pawel Pawlikowski, who himself learned as an adult that his paternal grandmother had been Jewish and died in Auschwitz. Ida was played by first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska, a feminist and hipster who was spotted in a Warsaw cafe by a friend of the director. Wanda was portrayed by the veteran of Polish stage and screen, Agata Kulesza.

The film has been nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott named Ida "one of the finest European films…in recent memory." The New Yorker's David Denby declared the film a "masterpiece" and "by far the best movie of the year." He wrote, "I can't recall a movie that makes such expressive use of silence and portraiture." Indeed, what makes this film so exceptional is that almost every stunning frame, shot in monochrome and perfectly lit, strikes us as if we were viewing a museum-quality photograph.

Félix and Meira
(French, English, and Yiddish with English subtitles)

Meira, a young wife and mother, feels increasingly alienated from the Hasidic community in which she was raised. She first encounters Félix, a penniless loner with no religion or ambition, in a kosher bakery near her home in Montreal's Mile End district. What they have in common is a sense of estrangement – Meira from her husband, Shulem, who complains about being ostracized because of her refusing to have a second child, and Félix because he could never satisfy the expectations of his wealthy father. In his frustration, Shulem sends Meira to stay with a relative in Brooklyn and keeps their child in Montreal. Félix follows her there, and so does a suspicious Shulem. In this story of forbidden love, Meira is forced to choose between a secular life with Félix and the religious way of life she has always known.

Directed by Maxime Giroux, Félix and Meira won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. Meira is played by Hadas Yaron, the first Israeli to win Best Actress at the 69th Venice Film Festival (2012) for her role in Fill the Void about a young Orthodox woman pressured to marry the husband of her deceased sister. The talented supporting cast of Félix and Meira includes French Canadian actor Martin Dubreuil as Félix and Brooklyn-born Luzer Twersky as Shulem.

The creators of Ida and Félix and Meira do not judge their characters, leaving it to us to contemplate what we might have done if faced with similar life decisions. It remains unclear whether Ida will take her vows or if Meira will return to Shulem. Questions of identity, faith, and family are not neatly resolved in these films, just as they are not in life.

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