The extraordinary Ida, mournful and devastating, is the new work and the first in Polish, by the filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. He was born, in Warsaw, grew up in England, and has long been drawn to recurrent themes of exile and cultural estrangement.
His previous work (Last Resort, My Summer of Love, and The Woman of the Fifth) typically concerned protagonists caught in some form of transition, of people fleeing their past or identity in search of something new, better or satisfying.
Ida deepens those themes, and marries them to a central philosophical question of Poland’s cruel, necessary past and poses tough, essential questions of forgiveness, shame, heroism and honor. The movie is fundamentally about a search for truth, and the act of bearing witness to that truth, no matter the horror uncovered in the process.
The new film is set in the terrifying, dark moments of the early nineteen-sixties, a period marked of suspicion, political repression and severe social restriction. Pawlikowski conveys this from the start in the brooding, austere black and white photography. The visual texture achieves a deft, eerie likeness to newsreel, especially the cold, almost medieval architecture and the empty landscapes.
The sensation is further accented by his decision to shoot in the film in the Academy ratio, the square 1:37 ratio that conjuring a punishing immediacy to its physical environment.
Pawlikowski has two groups of very talented collaborators, the cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski and the production designers Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski. Visually, the movie’s white on white compositions, interrupted by stabs of charcoal grey, is often spellbinding.
The story is framed as a personal foundation myth. A serious, somewhat closed off young woman, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an attractive, committed novitiate nun in her late teens who is preparing to accept her vows. Before doing so, she is ordered by her Mother Superior to meet with her only living relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her aunt.
“I know who you are,” Wanda tells the young woman when she turns up at her apartment building. In the first of a series of startling revelations, Wanda informs her niece, who was raised in an orphanage, that she is Jewish, and her actual name is Ida Lebenstern. Startled though also intensely drawn to the particulars of her parents’ personal travails, the young woman accompanies her aunt as they travel to the countryside to the family’s estate, a rural farmhouse where they were hidden in the nearby forest from the Gestapo during World War II.
Pawlikowski wrote the film with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The story sharply plays off incident, background, character and revelation to develop its ideas. Ida’s innocence and confusion is contrasted with Wanda’s bitter though often riotously bleak dark humor. "Do you you have sinful thoughts"? Wanda inquires of the young woman, following up before her response, "Of carnal love."
Wanda is a bit of a party apparatchik (a one-time feared prosecutor known as “Red Wanda,” for her work as a prosecutor during the show trials of a decade earlier), now filling out her bleak hours working as a judge, but mostly drinking and carousing and otherwise numbing herself. As the women undergo a tense quest to locate the dying patriarch of the gentile family who shielded Ida’s parents to better understand their fate, the film probes something else entirely, not just beliefs and prejudice but the guilt, shame and survival tactics that colored all manner of human behavior during the war.
The film is seemingly predicated on Ida’s act of witness and personal discovery, but the more dramatic and overwhelming material develops from Wanda’s painful admissions of profound loss and regret.
Ida is about two forms of horror collapsing against each other, the abuses perpetrated during the war framed against the privation of post-war Communism. It is also another work that directly addresses the question of nativist anti-Semitism, feeling of suspiciousness and alienation ever-present, from a bartender to more astoundingly, a priest, who asked about Ida’s parents, shrugs and says, Jews mostly clung to their own.
It is an annihilating vision, to be sure, but Pawlikowski and his performers find emotional outlets for their sorrow. Some of the richest filmmaking and acting occurs during the middle passages as the square, virginal Ida is pursued by a handsome saxophone jazz player (Dawid Ogrodnik). The astoundingly beautiful singer Joanna Kulig, in the same scenes, is like something from another time and place.
Agata Kulesza is one of the marvels of contemporary Polish film, and she brings the right combination of defeat, cynicism and bleak humor to a difficult part. By contrast, Agata Trzebuchowska is a novice, a nonprofessional who has subsequently given interviews saying she is not interested in acting ever again. She has a direct, plain style that works exceptionally well, where the absence of “professional technique,” liberates her and gives her a direct access, emotionally, to Ida’s pain and confusion. If it does turn out to be her only performance, it is an extraordinary one.
Ida is not a grand, sweeping work. It runs a fleet eighty minutes, but not a moment is wasted and everything, powerfully and devastatingly, connects.