Overview: A novice nun, Ida, discovers her Jewish ancestry in 1960s Poland and sets out with Wanda, her only surviving relative, to find and bury her parents. Music Box Films; 2013; Rated PG-13; 82 Minutes.
Nested complexity: Watching the opening frames of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, you’d be forgiven for thinking its restrained visual and aural style (its stark monochrome, single shots and minimal dialogue) were indicative of a bleak but ultimately simple film. Instead, the director of My Summer Of Love and The Woman In The Fifth loads every scene with historical context and intricate ideas about spirituality, faith, identity and violent pasts.
At face value, the road trip at the heart of Pawlikowski’s film serves as a metaphor for its characters’ emotional journeys, yet the story of Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan raised by the Catholic church and now residing in a remote nunnery, enables Pawlikowski to ask questions that resonate on both personal and political levels. The beauty of his approach is an unvarnished plot and a severe dislike of exposition. Instead Pawlikowski implies historical background from a few brief remarks. Take Ida’s journey to Lodz and Wanda’s reference to family connections in Lublin. Both cities, synonymous with their Jewish ghettos and mass deportations to extermination camps Chelmno and Belzec in occupied Poland, set the context of the Nazi’s decimation of the country and its Jews.
As Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and Ida journey to their family home, now occupied by Christians who insist on their rights to the land, anti-semitism bleeds further into Pawlikowski’s film. Stalinism is keenly felt too, signaled by Wanda’s own Stalinist crimes. The musings of a saxophonist and alluring jazz melodies suggest the mood is shifting, but this is not a version of the 1960s that the western world will easily recognise.
A personal relationship with history: Despite being on the festival circuit since Autumn 2013, it’s pertinent that Ida should win an Oscar in the seventieth year since the liberation of Auschwitz and in the same year that Night Will Fall (André Singer’s film documenting the death camps in original, visceral footage) should finally appear on television. Ida is not simply a film about the Holocaust but a meditation on violent histories and the passage of time. It is our relationship with images from history, often so abhorrent they become incomprehensible, that Pawlikowski explores. The character of the sheltered and naive Ida and her journey of self-discovery encapsulates our relationship with histories we cannot ever fully know, while Wanda, forced to face up to her own war-time past and experience of Stalinist reconstruction has been read as a metaphor for Poland itself. Underlining this personal element of his film, Pawlikowski sends Ida’s parents not to the gas chambers but to an intimate death where they come face to face with their murderer.
Identity, faith & God: Just as history is embedded within Pawlikowski’s characters, so too is the conflict between Christianity and Judaism manifested in Ida’s internal struggle, coming of age confusion and developing relationship with her Aunt. Pawlikowski leaves room here for a little gaiety as Wanda quizzes Ida on her sinful thoughts. Yet even this polarity is underscored later when Wanda likens her own impulsiveness and effortless sexuality with Mary Magdalene, sparking a ‘beast’ of a reaction from Ida.
At its most personal level, Ida is a penetrating story of two women on a journey of self-discovery but God is never far away. Faith can be felt in the film’s Catholic imagery and heirloom stained glass window, while Ida’s similarity to her mother suggests the transparency of organized religion. Reminiscent of Bergman in his balancing of character with meditation on faith, Pawlikowski’s casting of non-actor Agata Trzebuchowska against experienced performer Agata Kulesza is a stroke of genius. Trzebuchowska’s calm unflinching exterior keeps us guessing and contributes substantially to the film’s ambiguity.
Realism meets the dreamlike: Despite Ida’s obvious historical themes (emphasized by the bleak black and white cinematography that depicts a broken, worn out Poland and a sharp contrast to western ideas of the 60s), Pawlikowski has spoken a great deal about ‘the permanent present tense’. It’s a contradiction of Ida’s visual style that it appears to resemble both original post-war footage and to create an almost dream-like atmosphere, which ensures a feeling of relevance.
Shot in the narrow aspect ratio of 4:3, Ida constantly reminds us of its difference from real life. Another of this year’s Oscar nominated films, The Grand Budapest Hotel, also utilized the 4:3 aspect ratio and it’s interesting that both received nominations for their cinematography. By eschewing frequent cutting and holding characters in a single shot at a single angle, Pawlikowski creates the polar opposite of Anderson’s fantasy infused film, every frame invoking simplicity and an emotional response. Characters appear to walk out of the frame or are positioned at the very bottom of it, the empty space surrounding them invoking the idea that ‘God is everywhere,’ Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is a master-stroke that unites Ida’s complexity, its political and spiritual themes with its personal exploration of history.