By Daniel Barnes
*Ida is now available on DVD and streaming services.
Nominated for Best Cinematography and winner of Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, the bone-dry, black-and-white Ida is the fifth film from Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, but it’s just his second in the last ten years. I have only seen one of Pawlikowski’s previous efforts, the sensitive and low-key 2004 coming-of-age drama My Summer of Love, a film best known for giving Emily Blunt a showy role that became her breakout performance.
By contrast, Ida does not offer a showy role with breakout potential to the title character played by Agata Trzebuckowska, a meek, moon-faced orphan raised in a closed-off Catholic convent. Instead, Trzebuckowska’s performance stands as a study in innocent, blank-eyed rectitude slowly illuminated by experience and emotion. It is understated and carefully controlled work, and quite impressive for a “nonprofessional” actress, but much like the film, her performance gets pared down so far that it rests a little lightly on the consciousness.
Raised by nuns under the name of Anna, the beatific Ida is prepared to take her vows as the film opens in the early 1960s, but is informed by her prioress that she will first have to visit her last remaining relative, a woman who she has never met. The relative is her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza, also very good here), a coarse and hard-living opposite who informs Anna that her name is actually Ida, that she is Jewish rather than Catholic, and that her real parents were Holocaust casualties whose bodies were never found.
A tenacious ex-prosecutor for Poland’s Socialist government, Wanda has long given up trying to find meaning in her country’s tragic past, but she joins Anna in the search for her parents’ unmarked graves, if only for a sense of closure. Although Anna initially just wants her parents to have a proper burial, Wanda wants answers, and so they chase the ghosts of the past through old country villages and tentatively recovering cities. Anna and Wanda are polar opposites, but they also represent the potential for reconciliation between wisdom and faith, albeit one that doesn’t make it any easier to live with loss and doubt.
Many of the images are so composed and tranquil that human motion feels almost intrusive, as though a still photograph had suddenly sprung to life. Pawlikowski shoots much of Ida just slightly out-of-balance, often placing the characters excessively low in the frame, as though they were leaning away from the long-buried secret that is at the film’s center. Unfortunately, that makes for some rather dull, overly pedantic compositions, and yet Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s gorgeously grainy black-and-white cinematography remains one of the film’s great strengths.
At its core, Ida is an examination of a Polish-Nazi complicity that most of the surviving Poles that we see would prefer to leave buried – at one key moment, the location of the parents’ graves is bartered for land that has already been stolen – but like My Summer of Love, it is also a coming-of-age story. Dressed for almost the entire picture in a light gray habit, Anna is making her first and possibly last entry into a world of temptation and corruption, and her piety is tested the closer she gets to the ugly, inhumane truth, while her commitment to asceticism is challenged the more time she spends with her cynical, sin-chasing aunt.
For his part, Pawlikowski has no problem whatsoever committing to a rigid asceticism, eschewing a musical score and at one point even denying us the violent pleasure of an onscreen car accident, only permitting the banal and non-bloody aftermath. That embrace of monastic restraint is both of strength of Pawlikowski’s – at just 80 minutes, Ida is a textbook in narrative, visual and emotional economy – and also a weakness. For all of the film’s delicately structured character arcs and hushed visual poetry, Ida never completely connects, and Pawlikowski’s cinematic reserve often makes the film feel arid and passionless.