Making his return to filmmaking after his adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Woman in the Fifth (2011), Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest, Ida (2013), is a spare and outstandingly minimalist drama very much in keeping with his cinematic fixation with outsiders who find themselves out of their depths. Set in 1960s Poland and starring Agata Trzebuchowska in her acting debut, the film sees her playing Anna, a sheltered 18-year-old novitiate nun who’s been raised in a convent all her life. On the verge of taking her vows, Anna makes a variety of life-changing discoveries: her real name is in fact Ida and her Jewish parents were killed during the Nazi occupation.
This prompts her to join Wanda (Agata Kulesza) – her depressed, alcohol-dependent aunt and only living relative – on a road trip through the Polish countryside to uncover dark family secrets, long denied, as well as the haunting legacies and realities of post-war Communism. Shot in black & white academy ratio and featuring two subtle and gradually beguiling central performances, Ida is a beautiful and profoundly moving examination of the destructive ripples of the past and their continued effect on the present and future. The film is predominantly shot through with a precise, static camera, which adds to the striking framing and compositions of Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography, pitting the characters against literal and thematic eclipsing emptiness.
As much an evocation of post-War guilt as it is a story about personal discovery, the beauty of the film lays in the carefully handled interaction between Anna and Wanda, two women buckling beneath the weight placed on their shoulders as the last remaining descendants of their family. Though Kulesza turns in a spectacular performance as a judge and former persecutor associated with the Stalinist regime, struggling to balance the morality of her private life, the film fully sheds light on Trzebuchowska’s previously untapped talents, restrained but oh so evocative. A trim 82-minute run time encompasses so much whilst appearing to do very little, depicting a coming-of-age story that, despite the specifics, is as universal as any other, as Anna begins to doubt her faith and ongoing dedication to looming and restrictive vows. As much an exploration of the destruction brought on by Nazi occupation as it is about the inevitability of adulthood, Ida is a staggering and poignant film from a soulful auteur back to his best.
Ed Frost | @Frost_Ed