Film Review: Ida 

Pawel Pawlikowski’s portrait of a Polish orphan intimately examines the atrocities of war.

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Ida | A

Is it possible for a film to be too visually exquisite? Take any frame in writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s luminous Ida and you could proudly hang it on a wall as fine art. His black-and-white images have an opalescent glow that recalls the work of classic Dutch painters, and cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s uncluttered compositions are as elegant as they are ascetic. He and Pawlikowski boldly push their characters toward the bottom of the frame, making sure we understand how poignantly history looms over both their past and future. The boxy 1:33-1 frame of pre-WWII cinema further confines them, evoking an austerity of time and place. Much like the film’s setting, it is a compelling mix of faded grandeur and delicate modesty.

It’s 1962 in communist Poland, and Anna (arresting non-actor Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman raised in a convent as an orphan, is preparing to become a nun. But before she can take her vows, she’s told by the Mother Superior that she must connect with a relative she never knew existed. The woman turns out to be her mother’s sister (veteran actress Agata Kulesza), a judge with a take-no-prisoners reputation (her nickname is Red Wanda). Aunt Wanda reveals to Anna that she was actually born Ida Lebenstein, a Jew whose parents may have been murdered during the war. The promiscuous, hard-drinking aunt and innocent teen set out on a road trip to unearth  the ghosts of their past. 

Pawlikowski’s quietly meditative Ida is less interested in dwelling on those who lived (and died) during World War II and far more interested in the generation that followed in its wake — what they chose to carry forward and how it defined their choices. 

Tender, bleak, and darkly humorous, Ida has an emotionally immersive quality that makes you genuinely care about Anna and her aunt. This is no easy task, given that Pawlikowski has composed the majority of his scenes in long, devoutly restrained wide-angle shots. It’s a daring approach for what is essentially a personal, two-character drama.  

Luckily, both women resist all attempts to push them aside. With her face lit like a Vermeer, first-time actress Trzebuchowska demands our attention, as her curious glances and tentative gestures offer the only clues we have to her state of mind. Watchful yet passive, she eschews vulnerability for cautious regard. Every moment outside the convent is a test of faith and identity, whether it’s her aunt’s snide jokes, the humility of those who mistake her for a nun, or the attentions of a handsome young jazz saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik), and we’re drawn in as much by her beauty as her reactions to the events that unfold before her. Over the course of the film, you actually feel as though you’re witnessing Anna’s evolution into and acceptance of Ida.

Kulesza, on the other hand, is a thunderous force of nature, tossing off cynical barbs, grabbing her emotions by the throat, and smoking lots and lots of cigarettes. It’s an impressive balancing act, dominating every scene she’s in but never overwhelming the drama.

Ultimately, Ida’s narrative is deceiving in its simplicity. Wanda and Ida’s journey goes pretty much where we expect, but along the way Pawlikowski presents a world of moral complexity. Issues of guilt and forgiveness, denial and complicity, and faith and doubt come together with quiet urgency. Majestic in its ability to dwell in silence, this is a film that sticks with you long after the lights come up. And like the work of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, it’s unafraid to shoulder the full weight of a tragic past on a defiantly uncertain future. 

Ida opens Friday June 20 at the Maple Theater. It is rated PG-13 and has a run time of 80 minutes.

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