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A monochrome voyage of discovery in post-war Poland that explores the confines of faith and the ramifications of loss
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida shares a number of characteristics with its eponymous central character, played by debutant Agata Trzebuchowska. Both are restrained, unremittingly sober, and neither appears destined to embrace life’s more frivolous sides. Each of them embarks on a journey to explore post-war Poland and deal with the consequences of loss. The stoicism of both film and character could both prove dour for wide audiences, but through their subtleties and silences they each prove moving and compelling in their own ways.
Sister Ana (Trzebuchowska) is imminently taking her vows in a rural convent, where she has spent her formative cloistered years. Her mother superior insists that the young girl leave the walls of their sanctum to experience the outside world before making her lifelong commitment. Specifically, she is to journey to the home of her sole living relative and – despite her reticence – she soon pitches up on the doorstep of her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza).
They are effectively a super serious odd-couple: Wanda is a free-thinking atheist rather than a conforming Catholic; intellectual rather than insular; bleary-eyed cynic rather than wide-eyed idealist. She was a shining light in the formation of a new Poland but, for reasons unknown, now finds herself a provincial magistrate caught in an endless spiral of libation and fornication. At their first encounter, an abrupt discussion in Wanda’s kitchen while an unnamed man dresses and leaves, Ana asks her aunt why she did not adopt her after the death of her parents. It was because she couldn’t, she replies before correcting herself; she didn’t want to. She informs Ana of her true identity – Ida Lebenstein – and quips about her being a Jewish Catholic. it positions the two women as polar opposites but when the veneer is gradually chipped away it reveals a shared tragedy that has informed and directly led to their current circumstances.
Rarely is an opportunity for an emotional outburst allowed as the two women climb into a car and go out in search of the graves of Ida’s parents. Tensions arise regarding Wanda’s insistence on an evening drinking and dancing during an overnight stay in one town: “This Jesus of yours adored people like me. Take Mary Magdalen…” she claims to a disapproving Ida. As their investigation continues, however, they form more of a bond when confronted by a wall of silence and a lack of cooperation at every turn. Revelations provide further insight and it appears that neither is readily equipped with the requisite tools – in faith or the bottom of a bottle – to deal with their inner turmoil. Wanda is determined not to dredge up unavoidable horrors, and Ida struggles to reconcile the life she has known, with the one that she was never afforded the chance.
A film concerned ostensibly with what is left unsaid, and the secrets hidden beneath the flesh and the Polish countryside, it is the visuals that are left to carry the film along with the two extraordinary lead performances. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal is more than up to the challenge; with every single frame composed with the utmost elegance and exquisitely captured in black and white, it is a beautiful film to behold. Whether or not its sorrowful tone will appeal to wider audiences, Ida is bound to be appreciated on the festival circuit and may yet see its eloquent exploration of dealing with loss find its way into arthouse cinemas.
About Ben Nicholson
A compulsive cinephile, Ben fell in love with film through repeated viewings of Michael Jackson being transformed into a werewolf behind the scenes of John Landis' seminal video for Thriller. This passion has manifested itself in his consumption of movies and the enjoyment derived from reading, discussion and writing about cinema which can all be found on New Urbanite. His favourite films include The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran, and Last Year in Marienbad - to name but a few.