Pawel Pawlikowski is a director who has made films in the UK (My Summer of Love), Russia (Last Resort) and France (The Woman in the Fifth). He is Polish, was born in Poland and grew up in the wounded and confused post-war culture as the new Poland emerged in the 1960’s. While his films have delved into the genres of drama, thriller, socialist comedy and documentary, Ida is the film that confirms Pawel as a master.
Set in a draconian convent in the 1960’s before the political crisis, Ida follows a young and inexperienced nun Anna (first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska) who must return to her family before the prioress can take her vows. The only family waiting for her in the alienating communist and anti-Semitic town is the stubborn, pained and dispassionate Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a former judge and prosecutor for the Stalinist regime. She drops a bombshell on Anna, revealing her true name to actually be Ida, her family’s tragic past and their Jewish heritage. This propels both of them on a journey which brings moments of joy and sadness and an ultimate truth that proves too traumatic for them to bear.
Ida is a hard to define experience. It is a drama that invokes Swedish master Ingmar Bergman in both striking image and psychological content and yet it also recalls the utter starkness and hopeless tone of Russian director Tarkovsky. It is part inverted film noir with strong female characters playing on light and shadows while brutish men stumble and fumble in the background as the rain drops are heard but not seen outside the dim and dull cafes and bars. It is an allegory for faith and place, both personal and national. Most of all however, at its core, Ida is an aborted road trip and a failed attempt to reconcile or change.
Ida quietly plays off the impetuous and volatile Wanda perfectly. Her problems of men, drinking and self-control are never questioned or judged by the petite yet cold eyes of Ida as they encounter several pleasant and painful moments on their journey. It is hard to fault Kulesza’s portrayal of the Aunt, easily one of the most striking screen presences in recent memory, her bitter-sweet character penetrates Ida’s strict upbringing and it is fascinating to see Ida’s character unwind and attempt to change. Ida herself is played by Agata who makes her debut in the film as an actress. This is extremely impressive considering her gentle yet troubled portrayal of a girl in flux.
Ida is a bitter film, given the subject matter it should be hard to watch and yet each black and white still evokes the ultimate stark beauty and each character in it is framed perfectly. The frame is imperfect, the details and backgrounds sometimes blurred. However, the ambiance from these intentional inflections permeate wonderfully off the screen.
The sound too is striking and vital to each scene; relative silence is brought to roaring life by jazz performances, Wanda’s car and house is filled with the upbeat drowning out of big band music to hide her feelings and the serene austere convent is so silent it is deafening.
These elements, particularly the sublime cinematography marry well and reflect the quiet turmoil that both women face and the complex political and social economic quandary that was 1960’s Poland. The film concludes with one of the most profound images in modern cinema, a statement of the future and a snapshot of Poland’s past and present colliding, all represented by Ida simply walking down a road.
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton on Twitter here: @Kwenton