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Oscar for ‘Ida’ a thrill for its local distributor and Chicago’s Polish community

BY PATRICK Z. McGAVIN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Chicago was a recurring presence at the Academy Awards on Sunday, with high-profile victories by Common for his exhilarating best song, “Glory,” from “Selma,” and the writer Graham Moore for his adapted screenplay of “The Imitation Game.”

The foreign language prize to Pawel Pawlikowski’s brooding and somber “Ida,” reverberated from Chicago to Warsaw. The acclaimed black-and-white period film, set in 1962, about a young novitiate who discovers her Jewish origins, marked an emotional one-two punch for its American distributor, Chicago-based Music Box Films, and the city’s vast Polish emigre community.

After outmaneuvering other arthouse distributors, Music Box Films acquired the film at the Toronto film festival in the fall of 2013 and launched a spring release that at its high point reached more than 350 screens and grossed $3.8 million — stunning for a subtitled release.

"Ida" director Pawel Pawlikowski mugs with his Oscar backstage at Sunday's ceremony. | Invision/AP

“Ida” director Pawel Pawlikowski mugs with his Oscar backstage at Sunday’s ceremony. | Invision/AP

“Life is full of surprises,” Pawlikowski said on the Oscar stage. The director defiantly spoke through the orchestra trying to signal the end of his speech, by thanking Music Box Films, “who did a great job with very little money.”

The victory for “Ida” marks the first ever Academy Award for the 9-year-old Music Box Films, founded by William Schopf as a distribution wing of its flagship theater on Southport Avenue. The company experienced previous hits with the French thriller “Tell No One” and the original Swedish-language trilogy based on the “Millennium” franchise begun by “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and its two sequels.

The company’s only previous Oscar nomination was for the French-Canadian “Monsieur Lazhar,” two years ago. “We’re mostly thrilled for Pawel,” said Ed Arentz, the company’s managing director. “We’re also very thankful to the Academy for giving, though we’re biased, the Oscar to what we felt was the best film in that group.”

In the highly competitive arthouse distribution culture, winning the Academy Award constitutes a real coup, Arentz said. “For the company, it just helps us establish a track record,” he said. “Other distributors in the past have used this as a negotiating tool with producers and sales agents.”

The film was also nominated in the category of best cinematography, where it lost to “Birdman.” The film’s theatrical box office receipts are largely played out, but the film is now available on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon and available for download at iTunes. The company also recently issued its own Blu-ray and standard edition DVD of the film.

“There were a lot of people who haven’t seen the film yet who saw the clips last night, and that’s bound to help the film,” Arentz said.

“Ida” also marked the first time in Poland’s rich film history the country had won the prize for best foreign language film. The country’s films had been nominated on nine previous occasions, only to lose out. “Ida” has been a more polarizing work at home. The movie’s exploration of Polish anti-Semitism during World War II has come under criticism.

Pawlikowski’s grandmother was killed at Auschwitz. He praised his native country, calling it “resilient, brave, courageous and funny.” Pawlikowski was born in Poland and moved with his family to London as a teenager. “Ida” was his first Polish-language movie.

Arentz called it “poetic justice” that a Chicago company helped orchestrate the Academy Award for a city that has an estimated 250,000 native Polish speakers. That’s the largest concentration of Poles outside of Poland, said Jan Lorys, a historian at the Polish Museum. The country’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski, called it “a source of pride for all Poles.”

“Poland has always had a leading position in Eastern European cinema, but it was eclipsed by other European countries,” Lorys said. “There once was a film series called ‘Films from the Other Europe,’ meaning the countries behind the Iron Curtain.

“The film winning I hope will encourage people to do other in-depth analysis about that period of Polish history. Nine nominations and finally a win is very good.”