In regards to the previous films within Pawl Pawlikowski’s filmography, I have seen two of his previous three, with polar opposite reactions. I absolutely adored his 2004 film, “My Summer Of Love”, but equally hated his follow-up film, “The Woman In The Fifth” (which came out in 2011); a film I could not make heads or tails out of. To say I was undecided on Pawlikowski as a filmmaker was an understatement, but when news came out that he had made a new film, “Ida”, I was certainly interested. The film then started getting some seriously good reviews, and my anticipation grew, and when I saw the film’s trailer for the first time, I knew that “Ida” was going to be one great film.
“Ida” is set in Poland during the 1960’s, where at the beginning of the film we meet our main character Anna. She is a sister at the convent she has lived at all her life, and is on the verge of taking her vows and becoming a nun. After a meeting with her Mother Superior, Anna is given the name of her only living relative, Wanda Cruz; her aunt. She is told to meet this woman before taking her vows which she does. Upon meeting for the first time, Wanda tells her niece that her real name is Ida and that she is in fact a Jew, and that her parents were murdered during the war. Together, Wanda and Ida then go on a journey to discover how they died, who did it and where they are buried. The journey uncovers secrets and guilt from the recent past that will affect the two women forever.
As almost everybody reviewing “Ida” has said, this is a stunning film and so very sad. It seems that the plight of Jews during World War II is ripe material for filmmakers, with the sheer number of films made about the subject, but Pawlikowski’s handling of the material is beautifully subtle focusing on the intimate nature of the story rather than the grand scheme of things. The film is Ida and Wanda’s story, and it is deeply personal, but sadly it is only one of many similar stories from this time. It is also a very personal story for director PawelPawlikowski for the simple fact that he is telling a Polish tale during a dark moment in their history. Although Pawlikowski is from Poland, “Ida” is the first time he has set or shot a film in the country and he does an amazing job of evoking the period that the film is set. His decision to shoot in black and white and in the square Academy ratio is paramount to the success of the film, as it gives the impression that what we are witnessing actually took place in the 1960’s.
Being that the subject is a grim one, you know from the start that the journey you will be taking with “Ida” is an emotional one. Although the film is called “Ida”, the film is equally Wanda’s, with her character suffering the most throughout the film, mainly from guilt. Wanda is a judge, who in the previous decade was known for her tough as nails approach to the job, sentencing to death many people for their association with the war. She is incredibly cold, even towards Ida, and has a dependence on alcohol which she uses to deal with the pain and guilt from her past. You can see from the start when Ida gets there, she does not want to go back and deal with that time in her life again, but she begins to thaw and I think by helping Ida, she feels some redemption for her past actions. Ida on the other hand starts the film naïve and ends it with a greater sense of self and understanding exactly who she is and where she came from. While she admits to having sinful thoughts at times, she doesn’t appear to act on them ever, which gets her aunt to ask her how her vows be considered a sacrifice, if she doesn’t know what she is sacrificing. This seems to strike a chord with Ida, and towards the end of the film she attempts to experience more of life before becoming a nun. Even though the heavy topics of faith, religion, personal survival during wartime, genocide and guilt are at the forefront of this film, Pawlikowski attacks these subjects with the lightest of touches. He is never making a statement via sledgehammer tactics, instead he presents the world and his characters within it in shades of grey. No one is completely innocent in the world and those that are guilty felt it was the right thing to do at that time, and now have to live with the consequences of those actions.
From an acting standpoint, “Ida” is amazing as our two lead actresses are brilliant and emotionally devastating. They are also completely different from each other. Agata Trzebuchowska plays the titular Ida and is stoic in the role. Her movements are minimal, as she is often very still, and her dialogue limited. Her performance is mostly played out over her face as she very adeptly showcases how her character is feeling at any given moment by the smallest of gestures. It is a very internal performance, which is mainly due to the fact that Ida is a character who prefers to watch as opposed to getting involved in a situation. The character of Wanda on the other hand is much more external in the way she presents her emotions and Agata Kulesza’s performance in the role represents this in a very truthful manner. She portrays the character as someone who likes to be on the move, I guess in an attempt to not have to think, always talking and falling back on booze and cigarettes. She also doesn’t mind being intimate with men when given the chance, just to feel something. Wanda’s grief and pain in the film, though is the most painful a person can endure, making it understandable in the way she goes about life now. Kulesza has the most heart-wrenching scene in the film, which amazingly Pawlikowski doesn’t overplay at all, when she wraps a skull in her scarf, clutching it to her heart whilst slowly walking away. Your heart breaks for this woman in this moment, and yet Pawlikowski doesn’t attempt to manipulate his audience into feeling this at all; he respects his material and characters plight enough to know that what is going on is devastating enough on its own.
Visually, “Ida” is a sight to behold. It is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in a long time. The black and white photography is perfect to convey the grey tones within the narrative, but also to capture the snow covered locations of Poland, where the story is set. Pawlikowski’s framing is intriguing because a lot of the times he has his actors towards the bottom of the frame, most times either left or right of frame, with their surroundings enveloping them, making them feel small in a big world. It is like a visual statement that “Ida” is just one of many stories like this from this time in history. Pawlikowski will also at times have his actor’s features cut by the bottom of the frame, so the eyes of the character become the main focus. In fact his camera is used to focus more on the characters state of mind and psychological condition rather than the physical movements within the narrative. He uses close-ups extensively, to the point that it reminded me of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s seminal silent film, “The Passion Of Joan Of Arc”. When focusing less on character and more on location, he also comes up with some ingeniously strange angles to shoot from.
Overall, I though “Ida” was a stunningly beautiful film, albeit an extremely painful one. The film deals with a number of very heavy themes, but Pawlikowski handles these themes with such a light touch that you are never overwhelmed by them. “Ida” is anchored by two phenomenal lead performances and the cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Luasz Zal is nothing short of astonishing. At only eighty minutes, “Ida” packs quite a punch and is sure to be one of the best films you may see all year.