Film Review – Ida
Visually striking, expressively acted, and directed with perfect precision, Ida is pure movie storytelling at its finest. Before seeing this film, I was told about its beautiful cinematography. They did not lie, but also didn’t prepare me for how engaging the shots would be. I cannot remember the last time black and white was used better to accentuate the mood of a film. That the actors are just as mesmerizing as the visual shots and lighting was equally inspiring.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowskais), a young Polish nun in the 1960s, has lived in the convent her whole life, not knowing anything about her past. She is on the verge of taking her vows, but before she can, she is told by the mother superior that before she officially joins, she must go and see her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a woman she has never met. Anna is reluctant, but obeys very quickly. It is clear that while she is a sheltered woman, she is by no means dumb; she has simply lived a quiet, reflective life and has found comfort in her world.
Wanda is almost the exact opposite of Anna. Wanda carries herself like a woman who has seen the worst of the world and it weighs on her. Wanda has spent most of her life working for the state as a judge, and her evenings drinking, smoking, and sleeping around. There is an inner pain that comes through so that she needs to either be crusading against something or trying to block out the pain. From their conversations, we discover that events surrounding the Holocaust have played a major role in how these two have ended up the way they have.
Yet, even with this heavy subject matter, this is almost a silent film in the way it handles conveying emotion and desire. There are several scenes that just have a character looking at someone or something and from their looks we can tell the intensity of what they are going through. There are some great shots where the director will take us in close to a scene of people and then contrast it with a steady shot of a room with the character sitting or moving around, but just keep on them, usually with natural light streaming in. This was a beautiful way to keep the momentum going even when little is happening plot wise, letting us take in all that is around and keeping everything visually striking, while never going over the top.
Several times the movie had me worried that something introduced would derail what was happening but then the film corrected course. They pick up a young musician who could have been an easy temptation to Anna, and while there is a connection, it played out much differently than expected. The biggest contrast was between Wanda and Anna. Wanda believes in little except a sense of trying to obtain justice or drown out her pain, so she cannot respect Anna’s religious beliefs. This could have devolved into a back-and-forth debate about belief verses individuality, but instead is simply the two of them coming from different worlds. Wanda tries to claim Anna is judging her and grabs Anna’s Bible. This could have resulted in a philosophy lesson. Instead there is a greater dignity given to the exchange that allows for more of a framing of where these two are. Anna isn’t judging, but doesn’t want what has given her life meaning to be tossed around. It is the closest she has had to a family. Wanda, in contrast, feels she has failed in life, and now her own niece is a slave to a belief that she has long ago lost faith in due to her own life experiences. These two can never be completely in sync; it is not good or bad, it is just what they have experienced.
The pain of the past is what connects them, and while many movies dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust use investigation and delving into the horror to move things along, here it is more context for Wanda being the cynical, unhappy person she now is. These two making the discovery about what happened is more about how it hits them emotionally, rather than getting into the why or how this terrible thing happened. The focus is on what it leaves them with and what they can do with themselves, with what they now know.
Near the end, it felt that things were just about to start losing focus and then something happened that allowed things to continue on and it was the perfect moment. It gave a new sense to Anna’s journey while never feeling out of touch with what little we knew about these characters. As decisions were being made, I found myself nodding and saying yes, this makes sense, this is what they would do now. It wasn’t predictable; it was giving the characters a level of truth that is difficult to ever show.
Even with all I have said, it seems like there is so much more to say! Moments that seem so important to talk about keep coming into my head and, really, it is hard to wrap up what is essential. Director Pawel Pawlikowski‘s vision for his film is so carefully constructed, from the way we see the lead actors’ faces to the way we see light coming through a window, that in the end I was in awe of what was created.