Review: Ida (2013)

Ida is a beautiful film that will appeal to only a small set of people. It’s opaque, relying mostly on images to convey its story. It’s filmed in black and white in the classical Academy aspect ratio. It favours framing the characters in the bottom left of the screen, leaving a world of headspace above them. It’s a film that requires patience even though it only runs 80 minutes. But it’s an immensely rewarding film. It reflects on the past traumas of Poland as a nation, and contemplates how an individual who is sheltered from the world would approach the truth of their existence.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida takes place in the early 1960s. It follows a young novitiate, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is soon to take her vows to become a nun. She is an orphan and has one living relative: an aunt she’s never met. As the film opens, Anna’s Mother Superior has just received word from her aunt, and she encourages Anna to connect with her sole family member before she commits fully to the Church. Anna travels to meet her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and discovers the woman is a Communist Party judge who has grown sour due to her life experiences. Wanda tells Anna that she's Jewish, her real name is Ida Lebenstein and her family died in World War Two. Curious about how her family met their end, Anna travels with her aunt to where her family lived and tries to find out how she came to grow up in a church orphanage.

Ida is unquestionably an art film in the postwar European tradition, and like many of them it borrows structure and plot development from a popular genre: the road movie. It places together two conflicting characters, the innocent naïf Anna and her jaded aunt Wanda, and forces them to work towards a common goal. On their journey there is much dissension between the two as their opposing worldviews clash. Wanda often challenges Anna on her lack of experience. In a car ride conversation she questions Anna whether Anna ever thinks about a life without chastity and poverty. Anna says that she does, but she denies that she experiences the lusts of the flesh. Wanda sees the lie in Anna’s response, but lets it go, because it also contains truth. Anna is genuinely curious about the world outside her convent and this road trip allows her to explore the alternative through companionship with her worldly aunt. But her curiosity does not shake her faith; her resolve to become a nun remains firmer than her desire to experience the world.

On the way to their home village, Anna and Wanda come across a hitchhiker named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). They discover he is a jazz musician and he invites them to one of his shows in the town they’re headed to. They accept his invitation and spend the night listening to his band play jazz tunes in a small bar. After the sequences in dreary apartments, cold convents, and the snowy Polish countryside, the upbeat jazz scenes are jarring. The film looks and feels like it’s set in the even further past than 1960, but these jazz scenes draw us into the film's present day. As Anna sits there watching Lis play his saxophone and Wanda gets drunk beside her, the music entrances her. The free-flowing spontaneity of jazz reflects everything her ordered life as a nun will lack. She lusts after Lis, and more importantly, the freedom his music represents.

But freedom in the world Anna inhabits isn’t so ideal. The jazz is a respite from the cold harshness of reality and the wounds of the war that 20 years haven’t healed. As she discovers the truth about her family and experiences more of life outside the convent, Anna’s naivety is shattered, but her dedication to a life outside the world is also vindicated. Why be a part of a world that tried to exterminate you?

The decision to film in black and white Academy ratio becomes clear as the narrative progresses. It convincingly replicates the feel of the time period. But beyond that, Poland in the 1960s was still struggling with a past that permeated every aspect of life. Its history clung to the landscape and the people. The monochrome palette and dour cinematography represent this past that forces its way into the present. It’s fitting that the very look of the land would be oppressive. The unconventional framing allows us into Anna's mind in ways the dialogue never does. The ample headspace above Anna always reminds the viewer of God looking down on her. She is always aware of God being present in her interactions, and so the camera reflects her mental space. As well, the framing makes Anna insignificant. She is a small being at the margins of life. She survived as a child because she seemed so helpless.

Ida comes to some sad and perceptive conclusions regarding the past and its effect on the present. It presents Poland as a country constantly struggling to overcome past injustices. The Communist Poland of the 1960s struggled to distance itself from the Poland of World War Two just as modern Poland struggles to distance itself from Communism.

But despite its dourness, Ida still reflects the beauty of the world. Anna is an innocent creature, existing in the midst of sadness and bitterness, but she perseveres. She ends the film less naïve than when it began, but doesn’t abandon every conviction like her aunt. Her knowledge of the past empowers her understanding, and confirms her own attraction to more than worldly matters. For her, God may be cold and distant, but so are her fellow human beings. The monastic life dedicated to God at least represents something beautiful and ordered—a way beyond the suffering and sadness from which she came.

8 out of 10

Ida (2013, Poland/Denmark)

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski; written by Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lankiewicz; starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza and Dawid Ogrodnik.