Film of the week: Ida

Pawel Pawlikowski condenses European (and cinematic) history into a “sad, small”, ineffably potent road movie of the soul.

Catherine Wheatley
Updated:

from our October 2014 issue

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)

Set in an austere, almost abandoned Poland during the early 1960s, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s first feature made in his homeland is a spare, haunting piece of minimalism, opening in silence on a black-and-white close-up of a young novice, the broad planes of her face calling to mind a young Renée Jeanne Falconetti. But if this convent-set overture primes us to expect a meditation on faith in the style of Dreyer or Bresson, what we get is both far simpler and even more profound, a still water that runs unspeakably deep.

Anna has been raised in the convent where she was abandoned as a baby. She has never known anywhere else. Now 18 and about to take her vows, she is ordered by her mother superior to visit Łódź, and the aunt whose existence was hitherto unknown to her.

The woman she meets, Wanda, is hard-faced and hard-drinking, simmering with contempt for the world. She taunts Anna about her faith and reveals that she is in fact Jewish: “A Jewish nun,” she snorts. Anna’s real name, Wanda tells her, is Ida (pronounced Ee-da) and her parents were killed during WWII.

These revelations lead to a sad, small road trip through the bleak Polish countryside to find out what happened to Anna’s parents. As the two women travel through ghostly villages and across shorn fields into the Stalinist architecture of Łódź and Szydłów, a history very delicately, almost silently, unfolds. The details are sparse, the narrative laconic to say the least. But we don’t need to know the intricacies of Poland’s political past to feel that there is something rotten in the air. Places are empty, people shifty. Ida is shot in hard-focus black-and-white but leaves the impression that even in colour this land would seem pale, bled of life. This is a place where stained glass, usually such a source of illumination, is but an impenetrable collection of semi-opaque shapes.

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)

Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s detailed, painterly style of shooting is balanced by their use of natural light, which casts their sets in shadows. Wanda and Anna are literally boxed in by the unusual 1.37:1 aspect ratio and static camera, overwhelmed by the spaces they inhabit and the weight of history. Impassive grey skies and bulky cement blocks dominate the screen, consigning the characters to its lower corners. (A special commendation should go to the film’s UK subtitlers for switching to surtitles when necessary to keep the images intact.) The bare, brutal mise en scène is all right angles and parallel lines: window frames, doorways, railings, even the trees are unusually upright, as if the landscape itself is trying desperately to impose order on chaos. And of course there are the cruciforms that hang on wall after wall, and which a prostrate Anna will eventually form with her own body.

Anna is the axis around which the film turns – indeed, her final flight from Łódź spurs the camera into its first movement. Her novice’s robe lends her a subtle authority over the people she and Wanda encounter, who evoke God’s name as a second-thought blessing at the sight of her. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska – whose glittering, unreadable eyes are almost black – is perfect in the role.

But this is as much Agata Kulesza’s film as Trzebuchowska’s, and her performance as Wanda is simply breathtaking. Contorted from the effort of plugging the emotional dam with booze, sex, cigarettes and sharp lines, Wanda is an old-school noir broad, her shiny veneer constantly on the verge of cracking.

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)

Anna’s theme is a simple chorale prelude for piano by Bach; Wanda’s is Mozart’s magnificent Jupiter Symphony, full of drama, light and shade. Wanda is the embodiment of Poland’s past hopes and disappointments, the self-destruction she wreaks on herself the damning evidence that, to paraphrase Terry Eagleton, European history turns on a tortured body. Anna is its legacy, and it’s little wonder that her first response to the horrors she unveils is to preserve what innocence remains to her, sequestering herself away from the world, seeking refuge in her Catholic God.

But this is ultimately not a film about finding salvation through belief, and at its end we can’t be sure where Anna is going. Crafted with deceptive simplicity, riven with uncertainty, Ida has no answers to the questions it raises about how we protect ourselves and our loved ones from the burdens of the past, nor how we move forward. But its indelible images are a stark reminder of Bazin’s dictum that film itself is a kind of miracle.

 

In the October 2014 issue of Sight & Sound

Throughout his career, Pawel Pawlikowski has demonstrated a particular affinity for exiles and outsiders – and his latest, Ida, a drama examining post-WWII Poland, is no exception finds Michael Brooke.

Throughout his career, Pawel Pawlikowski has demonstrated a particular affinity for exiles and outsiders – and his latest, Ida, a drama examining post-WWII Poland, is no exception finds Michael Brooke.

The outside

Throughout his career, Pawel Pawlikowski has shown an unwillingness to be constrained by commercial or editorial pressures, and demonstrated a particular affinity for exiles and outsiders – and his latest, Ida, a drama examining post-WWII Poland, is no exception. By Michael Brooke.

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