by Matt Levine
Although the director Pawel Pawlikowski left his native Poland at the age of 14—due primarily to growing social unrest and widespread poverty in the late 1960s and early ‘70s—themes of repression, freedom, and the political importance of artistic creation (all pertinent issues for Poland after World War II) can be traced throughout his filmography. After settling in London in the 1980s, Pawlikowski made several documentaries focusing on Russian writers such as Venedikt Erofeev and Fyodor Dostoevsky—specifically the value of their work when placed in a socially turbulent context. These themes became even more centralized in the disorienting 1992 film Serbian Epics, analyzing the tense interplay between society and art in a setting closer to his homeland. When Pawlikowski made the switch to fiction films in 1998 with Twockers, the tension between personal agency and societal pressures was slyly injected into a bittersweet character study—a balance the director repeated with My Summer of Love (2004), his most well-known film to date. Now, with Ida, Pawlikowski finally makes a film in and about his home country, again asking how we shape our identities while navigating the roles that society expects us to play. Approaching national, political, and religious identity through a bleak tale of historical trauma, Ida is hauntingly profound, its eighty minutes overflowing with ambitious themes and unforgettably beautiful images.
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Producers: Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Cinematographers: Ryszard Lenczewski, Lukasz Zal
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music: Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselak
Premiere: September 11, 2013 – Gdynia Polish Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 2, 2014
US Distributor: Music Box Films
When we first meet Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate days away from taking her vows at a convent in the Polish countryside, she is carefully painting a sculpture of Jesus. Her meticulous touch denotes both her Christian piousness and the potential for art to provide solace and escape—a subtle theme throughout Ida, conveyed especially by a small jazz band we meet later in the film. Anna is an enigma at first, her features quiet and impassive. When she is called to a meeting with the Mother Superior, we learn that Anna was taken in as a young child when her parents were killed during Nazi occupation. She has one known living relative, an aunt named Wanda Gruz she has never met, and is encouraged to visit her before taking her vows.
Ida is set in the early 1960s (when Pawlikowski would have been only a few years old), and the film's immaculate production design and location scouting beautifully visualize this bygone era. In many historical films, there are tiny elements (a mere turn of phrase, maybe, or an anomalous costume) that weaken the verisimilitude, but Ida is absolutely immersive in its not-so-distant historicity. This is especially true of Anna’s first visit to a nearby village: as she gazes raptly out of the train window, a ravishing new world overwhelms her senses, suggesting a frenetic life she has never known.
If the kinetic whir of the city sheds a glimmer of doubt on Anna's chosen vocation, her monastic devotion is further weakened when she meets her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza)—who, it is immediately apparent, represents Anna's polar opposite. Vacantly smoking a cigarette and hurrying a half-dressed male companion out the door, Wanda eyes Anna with curiosity and, it seems, disdain. Wanda takes gloating pleasure in bluntly asking a question that may unsettle Anna’s entire life: “So you’re a Jewish nun?,” she spits out brusquely, though not without sympathy. Anna’s real name, Wanda divulges, is Ida Lebenstein; her parents were Jewish, and the location of their graves is currently unknown, though they’re likely buried near the family’s former home. Wanda brings Ida a picture of her as an infant in her mother’s arms—a ghostly photograph that introduces her to a mother she never knew and a self-identity totally alien to her. Ida and Wanda decide to track down the gravesite where Ida’s parents (and Wanda’s son) are buried—a metaphorical attempt to come to grips with the past, as many Jews in Poland were forced to do in the decades following World War II.
Many Polish films have dealt with the country’s lingering guilt over the genocide of Jews by both Nazi occupiers and anti-Semitic Poles; one recent example is Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s furious Aftermath, which played at MSPIFF this year. Thankfully, Ida takes a more even-keeled approach than Aftermath; indeed, it becomes clear early on that Pawlikowski has little interest in analyzing the country’s wartime history. The film uses Ida’s Jewish identity as a platform to explore concepts of religion and self-perception more broadly, rather than a pretense for yet another tragic exposé of the horrors of the Holocaust. In other words, Ida is more existential contemplation than somber war story. Ida is forced to question her devotion to the Christian faith, an ideology that her family of course did not share; does this belated realization change her life’s path in any way? Are the legacies passed down by our ancestors more defining than the identities we assign ourselves?
If Ida’s religious faith is unsettled by the discovery of her Jewish roots, this equivocal identity is paralleled by Wanda’s political alienation. A brief scene reveals that Wanda is a powerful judge for Poland’s post-Stalinist regime; we watch as she curtly sentences an anti-socialist activist for chopping down a bed of tulips “planted by socialist scouts.” She later admits to Ida that she was once known as “Red Wanda,” so named for the numerous executions she passed down to so-called “enemies of the people.” Wanda explicitly tells Ida that she is an atheist, but she also seems ashamed of her political ideology, ultimately viewing it as hollow. As Ida and Wanda track down the location of their family’s grave (attempting to visit the elderly, hospitalized man who may have killed them more than a decade ago), the two women forge a disharmony that provides the film’s thematic crux: Ida’s spiritual uncertainty versus Wanda’s political disillusion.
At first, the disparity between the two characters seems simple: Ida is reserved and saintly, Wanda is hedonistic and cynical, hard-drinking and promiscuous. But nothing in Ida is as simple as it seems, and the two of them gradually begin inching towards the other’s worldview. Wanda seems despondent over her lack of faith, though she continues to drown these worries with endless alcohol; Ida becomes reticently attracted to a kind jazz musician and briefly sheds her nun’s habit to experience a night of secular pleasure. Brilliantly, Ida and Wanda’s incompatibility is reinforced by the casting: Ida is played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska (who was plucked from a Polish café to appear in her first film) while Wanda is played by veteran Polish actress Agata Kulesza. The raw innocence of the former and the cool stoicism of the latter play beautifully off of each other. An audacious use of negative space in the film's compositions further emphasizes the distinct (though parallel) crises of the two characters: as morasses of empty screen space surround them (a void further emphasizes by the sharp blacks and grays of the monochrome cinematography), both Ida and Wanda seem dwarfed by landscapes, both physical and psychological, too vast to overcome.
The film may view both Ida’s religious devotion and Wanda’s dedication to political tyranny as empty delusions—attempts to define oneself artificially, through constricting labels rather than genuine human beliefs. Then again, it may not: the characters remain alluringly enigmatic, and the inconclusive ending forces the audience to hypothesize whether or not Ida will take her vows after all. Either way, this somber ambiguity regarding the value of religious and political ideals has led some to describe the movie as bleak and hopeless, though this judgment doesn’t seem fair. The film is both existential and humanistic: it asks broad questions regarding the identities human beings apply to themselves, but it understands the confusion and alienation that might provoke people to adhere to such beliefs in the first place. Despite the movie’s dreary beauty and tragic moments, a tender, compassionate levity is also provided by the character of Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), the hitchhiking saxophone player who gently seduces Ida; their sincere (if transient) relationship acknowledges the potential for real human connection, and Lis’ character emphasizes the restorative value of art (especially in his beautiful and mournful performance of John Coltrane’s “Naima”).
With so much to ponder thematically, I’ve neglected Ida’s ravishing aesthetic—without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful films of the year so far. Early in the shooting process, Pawlikowski decided to promote one of his camera operators, Lukasz Zal, to director of photography—a decision which paid off immensely. Zal was faced with a tremendous challenge: to concoct a visual style that would emphasize the film’s early 1960s setting without seeming overly gimmicky. The film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio and black-and-white cinematography certainly evoke a bygone period of filmmaking, but they also work conceptually, as the characters seem trapped by a world forever closing in on them, desolate yet gorgeous. More simply, the clarity of detail and wide spectrum of gray shades are astounding to look at—practically every shot is its own marvel of composition, with the camera often providing a rigid or slowly-moving frame. Credit must also be given to editor Jaroslaw Kaminski, who is able to lend the film a languid rhythm and create a number of jarring contradictions: for example, after one character commits suicide, a reverse shot of their apartment several days later emphasizes their conspicuous absence—an ingenious way to progress the plot while providing emotional emphasis.
At times, Ida may be too restrained for its own good: the performances from both Trzebuchowska and Kulesza rely on subtle stoicism in order to convey their inner turmoil, but the muted emotions make the tragic story less impacting than it might have been with a more volatile acting style. Yet this allows both Ida and Wanda to remain complex, enticing mysteries, as human beings almost always are; the film's refusal to clearly explain their psychologies and motivations forces us to question human nature in a profound and unnerving way. How do we define ourselves? Do we forge our own personas, or do we unwittingly fit into the categories that society has constructed for us? By asking such ambitious and unanswerable questions, Ida ultimately achieves a magisterial portrayal of how the world and the self violently intertwine.