Film Reviews

Ida Paweł Pawlikowski

Rating - 8/10

Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida is a film empowered by simplicity- from its quiet, deliberate aesthetic (black-and-white in Academy standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio), the three-letter title, a succinct eighty-minute running time, to the pared plot of two estranged relatives converging in early 1960s Poland.  These choices construct a well-tread landscape of post-WWII devastation, especially to advocates of European art house cinema, as the film pays tribute to the influence of Ingmar Bergman with positively compelling co-leading female performances that perfectly reflect upon the dichotomy of their characters. Agata Trzebuchowska is the nonprofessional who plays young Ida, the stoic but wide-eyed novice nun, and the other is Agata Kulesza, a veteran of stage and screen, who instills further conviction into the cynically flippant Aunt Wanda.  Their road trip into the recesses of the country to learn the truth about Ida's parents, the Lebensteins, provides Wanda with dual, almost dueling purposes that are persistently trying- to prove her notions right about the fate of her family's betrayal by members of the community and a chance to mold her niece, the last of her own flesh and blood.

In a landscape and nation that have suffered considerable oppression under Stalinist rule, the environment even seems to have influenced Wanda's chosen career as a prosecutor who sent convicted anti-communists to their deaths years ago.  Ida, on the other hand, has been sheltered from the true horrors of the world (her Jewish heritage and true name are even hidden from her until she leaves the convent where she's been known as "Anna"); she displays only a restrained curiosity when confronting realizations at the various places on their pilgrimage- from her parents' former rural home, to a hotel in Szydłów where a young traveling saxophonist named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) is playing with a jazz band, to an infirmary where a dying man, Szymon Skiba (Jerzy Trela), may hold the true location of the Lebensteins' forested burial during the Nazi occupation.  Pawlikowski's restraint dominates the tone of the film with many efficiently Bressonian-like scenes that simultaneously convey an urgency and futility in Ida and Wanda's efforts, an intriguing symmetry of their personalities.

Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal's salient cinematography is a more passionate interplay of light and dark forces, another seeming equilibrium that ultimately aligns more with Wanda's temperament.  A shot of Ida's shadowed figure positioned to the right of a radiant bedside window, a lit cigarette illuminating the determination in Wanda's face in total blackness, and sunlight flashing through a barren wooded area as their car rolls towards the empty horizon are just a few moments of Ida's visual ecstasy that recall the camerawork of Sven Nykvist, frequent Bergman collaborator.  These moments of beauty seem more impassioned as the film progresses, suggesting the journey's effect of heightening not only Ida's senses but Wanda's desperation.  In familiar coming-of-age fashion, Ida literally and figuratively has her own veil lifted in her interactions with wandering secular characters and those of dubious moral character, which challenges the remote stillness of her prior convent life.  Upon Ida's return to say her vows, she cherishes the scent of a rosary and stifles a laugh at the austere silence of a meal in the refectory.  Unable to truly assimilate, worldliness, however briefly encountered, has chipped away at her spirituality.  Wanda's increasing kinship and despair towards her niece, whom she believes will not abdicate her Christian upbringing, is particularly harrowing during one occasion at a bar, drunkenly confessing that "[Ida] has such beautiful hair, but she hides it away," a clear metaphor for Ida's Jewish identity.

As their paths unite and quickly diverge again, a sense of obligation permeates them both.  The film allows Wanda's hardened life lessons, sinful habits, and definitions of masculinity and femininity to facilitate Ida's development into an independent adult, indulging in everything previously teased on their travels.  Its indulgence is sweetly elegant, though, captured in obscured close-ups, jump-cuts, and enveloped in the sound that Ida has come to associate with desire, the melody of John Coltrane's Naima.  The periphery around her dissolves into these quiet cathartic moments, carrying the film into an unknown trajectory as Ida pursues a path that seems to stand in for a universal one of a coming era.  Her formerly low presence in the camera frame, as if being oppressed in the context of the worldly and spiritual surroundings (without such a scathingly specific critique like last year's Beyond the Hills), transforms into a dynamic confidence in full-figure.  As a tidy film, Ida articulates an aesthetic that emotively conveys as much as an epic-length adventure; its modest simplicity is harnessed in a question posed by Lis to Ida, indicative of the work itself: "You have no idea the effect you have, do you?"