With its startling use of black and white and meticulous compositions, one can understand how Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida has distinguished itself and been tipped as Poland’s Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Film. Underneath this veneer, however, is where the film’s treasures truly exist. Focusing on a repressed, tight-lipped nun (who is on the verge of taking her vows) forced to rediscover the horrific nature of her familial history, Ida grapples beautifully with the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust in 1960s Poland.
While the film’s plot is rooted to a specific time and place, Ida also possesses a timeless resonance, parsing the disconnect that often exists between one’s culture and ethnicity. The film broaches this topic with an erudite lens and great stylistic panache. That being said, it’s not exactly the most emotionally overwhelming piece, and its aesthetics sometimes distract from a brutally unsentimental worldview. Ida delves deeply into the psyche of its titular character, played by Agata Trzebuchowski. Opening on scenes of her life in a Polish convent, the film quickly profiles the bleak piousness of Ida’s existence. This includes sparse conversations with her superiors and some of the most unjoyful soup-eating I’ve ever seen. This rather banal life of mindless worship is uprooted when Ida is called into a meeting with one of the convent’s head nuns, where she has an atom bomb on her. Contrary to what she had previously believed, Ida has family that survived the tumult of WWII: an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who informs Ida that she is in fact a Jew.
This provokes Ida to take an extended leave from the convent for the first time in her life. She begins to travel with Wanda through the grim realities of Communist Poland, searching for the man who Wanda claims was responsible for the death of Ida’s parents and who can guide them to their unmarked graves. Like so many other films, the road traveled by these two women is one deeply rooted in allegory, with Ida’s identity being put both literally and figuratively in flux through her journey.
Ida offers the viewer many things throughout its relatively brief running-time. It is a masterclass on that age-old saying “show don’t tell.” People barely speak in the film, with psyches often being defined purely through looks and sequences of inaudible dialogue. This is a boon to someone like the hard-drinking Wanda, who Pawlikowski and Kulesza characterize as a woman deeply burdened by a noxious mixture of grief, regret and self-loathing. While many movies might attempt to layer on expository monologues to explore Wanda’s character, Ida instead embraces minimalism, often harnessing Kulesza’s devastated facial expressions and little more.
This stark, observational stance, while communicative regarding a character like Wanda, proves to be the film’s undoing with its central character. Agata Trzebuchowski – in her film debut – is presented as a total blank slate, saying nothing and doing even less. This passivity, while obviously at the service of the film’s central themes of identity (or lack there of), keeps Ida from becoming truly emotionally absorbing. She rarely if ever smiles, and for nearly the entire film she refrains from any sort of action. While her experiences are never uninteresting exactly, her relationships to them certainly are. Throughout the entire film she is utterly obtuse and nearly impossible to read. One almost expects the character’s response to finding out her parents’ fate would be similar to the nuns switching up her nightly soup ration.
Exacerbating the film’s general chilliness is its much lauded cinematography. While immensely beautiful, Lukasz Zal’s photography gives the film a contrived air, a type of artful precision that feels curated and museum-like. Worse still is that the photography often feels disconnected from the film’s themes, provoking reactions that are also museum-like, such as “What?” or “Huh?” or my personal mantra: “I don’t get it.” The opposite of this also arises at specific moments throughout the film, such as a scene at the unmarked grave of Ida’s parents, where the man responsible confesses to his role while he is plopped literally in the grave. This shot, while striking aesthetically, feels a little too obvious and perhaps even a tad self-indulgent. I personally was imagining Zal and Pawlikowski dancing on the other side of the camera after reviewing the composition, hands clasped together and lips smacking in self-congratulatory glee.
When all is said and done, however, the craft of Ida is still remarkable. Not only does the editing and cinematography coalesce to perfectly ape the style and feel of a 60’s film, but Pawlikowski is able to effectively juxtapose the gritty uncertainty of secular, Soviet-era life, with the joyless comfort of Ida’s convent. Of course, as mentioned above, it’s very possible that Pawlikowski’s aesthetics may be a little too effective. Sometimes you wish he would just get out of his own way or at least find a leading character that is equally absorbing.