Film Review: Ida
Drama 2013 DCP NC16, Brief Nudity
Polish With English Subtitles
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
Starring Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Ida has been described as a gem, and fittingly so. A masterclass in aesthetics with its alienated compositions and play on the sombriety of black and white, Pawlikowski’s latest creation is hauntingly beautiful. Yet as gems go, this is an unpolished one – the transitions between each shot do not attempt to be slick, and Ida is played by an untrained Agata Trzebuchowska, a newcomer to the big screen.
Set in postwar Poland, the movie follows the story of orphaned young nun Anna (Trzebuchowska) before she takes her vows. The eighteen-year-old Anna is ordered by her Mother Superior to visit her last living relative, aunt Wanda Cruz (Agata Kulesza), where she discovers her family background – her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is Jewish. It is immediately obvious that Ida and Wanda are on extreme ends of the spectrum. A former state judge now turned to drink, cigarettes and men, Wanda’s harsh wit and suppressed anger runs like a rogue train threatening to spin off the tracks, made sublime through Kulezsa’s performance – a stark contrast to Ida’s quiet restraint, ingenuity, and at times purposefulness. The unlikely couple set out in a bid to find out what happened to Anna’s parents, unearthing dark wartime truths and reconciling themselves in the process.
From the moment the movie starts, the unusual choice of an almost square frame ratio is reminiscent of the old classics and calls to attention the exquisite composition of every scene. Shots are stripped bare of extraneous detail, each one stunning and deliberate in its contribution to the narrative. There is no superfluousness in Pawlikowski’s story – the film is surprisingly short (80 minutes) for the immensity of what it has to say.
This monumentality is made apparent as characters are dwarfed against spacious interiors or bucolic surroundings, mere players on the stage of a Poland struggling to regain itself after the war. Scenes of the convent that Ida was born and raised in are composed largely of stretched arches and ceilings, majestic yet austere, barely punctuated by the staid headwear of the nuns at the very bottom of the frame. Wanda and Ida are nothing more than specks in the frame as they cross barrren land in search of the burial place of Ida’s parents.
Like much else of the film, Pawlikowski’s use of monochrome is a well-calculated choice. Contrast is applied to create striking visuals against his winter setting. The dark heavy coat that Wanda wears makes an indelible mark as she strides across the snowy landscape, while Ida’s grey uniform is less harsh – perhaps also symbolic of their personalities.
With each shot taken with the camera fixed in place and only one point of action onscreen, a certain stillness pervades the film. More impressively, this visual stillness is accompanied by an aural stillness. Characters consciously strive to be quiet – there is no mistaking the quiescence ringing through the convent as the nuns go about their activities, or the stealth as Ida departs from Wanda’s home and escapes everything she had once never experienced.
An intensely human rendition, the film is nevertheless more than a tale of a nun and a cynic. While the plot centers around two women and stark differences that they could never quite come to terms with, it also highlights a shared preoccupation with their perished family members and inevitably, the war. Situated at the heart of an important moment in Polish history, Ida deals with issues of history and grief at both the personal and national level. As Wanda and Ida grapple with personal loss and make different choices at the forked road, Pawlikowski alludes to the choices that Poland has made and the options that we, as viewers, might have chosen.
Note: Ida has won 68 awards and has been nominated for 60 other awards to date, including the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 2015 Academy Awards (Oscars) and Best Film Award at the 2014 European Film Awards.