After years of working in the British film industry, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski returned to his homeland to direct the post-World War II drama Ida. Filmed in black-and-white, the film captures the solemn aftermath of the Holocaust to stunning effect. It’s an austere piece of filmmaking that vividly illustrates the lingering darkness and painful secrets of the past.
Ida is the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun-in-training who receives some life-changing news on the eve of taking her vows. Orphaned as a baby, she is advised to make contact with her only remaining relative before she makes her final commitment. Upon meeting her tough-minded Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), she abruptly learns that her parents were Jewish and were killed in the war. Furthermore, she finds out that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. With her true identity revealed, she decides to embark on a journey through the Polish countryside with Wanda, hoping to uncover more of their family’s history.
Set in the 1960s, the post-war themes of Ida wouldn’t seem too out of place within the Italian neorealist movement of that era. The heavy psychological effects of the Holocaust are palpable, with a strong sense of sorrow as our protagonist digs up unmarked graves (both literally and figuratively). Many Holocaust-related films attempt to reconcile with the tragedy through isolated accounts of heroism, bravery or retaliation (Schindler’s List, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters). Ida however, comes from the retrospective view that the harsh reality is almost too overwhelming to overcome. In that regard, it makes an interesting companion piece to 2012’s Lore (a film about a young woman who learns the horrific truth about her Nazi parents). In both films, there’s little solace or relief in uncovering these truths. It’s certainly evident in the performances of our two main actresses here.
The acting styles of Kulesza and Trzebuchowska are markedly different but both are very compelling. Kulesza’s Wanda is a worldly, plain-spoken judge who openly displays her deep well of emotions. Debut actress Trzebuchowska however, plays Ida as an intentionally blank slate, a product of her sheltered upbringing. Hers is a passive, almost wordless performance but it commands your attention with her big piercing eyes, amplified by the cinematography. As they learn more about the last days of Ida’s parents, their contrasting responses are fascinating to watch.
The cinematography that showcases Trzebuchowska so well is indeed the film’s most impressive trait. The meticulous framing and exquisite lighting are absolutely breathtaking. It’s a great example of visual storytelling, driven by long static shots that invite you to mull over each scene. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal truly deserve to be mentioned alongside the modern greats like Deakins and Lubezki. Many have noted the film’s remarkable box office performance given its obstacles (black-and-white, subtitles) but when you watch the film, it’s easy to understand its appeal. Despite its quiet nature and deliberate pacing, its imagery offers a profound narrative clarity that’s rare for an “art film”. You won’t find any Malick-esque digressions here.
Yet despite its pleasing accessibility, there seems to be a missing piece in the overall picture of Ida. Specifically, I felt the film didn’t sufficiently engage with Ida’s Jewish heritage. I kept waiting for a scene to explore the social, cultural or notably, the religious implications of this revelation. It would have likely provided a fuller portrait of the character, especially when the performance withholds so much. Ida’s character arc is as much about her introduction to the real world as it is about her search. As such, there isn’t enough to substantially distinguish it from your typical coming-of-age story or mystery investigation.
In the end, the plot defiencies of Ida can be seen as minor setbacks in light of the outstanding visuals. It may not satisfy those hoping for a more comprehensive narrative, but there’s no denying it’s excellence in cinematography. That alone should make it worthy of acclaim. Cinema is a visual medium after all, and from the look of Ida we have a work of art.
Ida is currently playing in select theaters.
Ida is the Polish submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.