It’s all too rare that you see a film so humbling that it takes you out of your daily life and puts you somewhere else. On a more reflective plain. Ida, a Polish film from director Pawel Pawlikowski, is one such diamond in the rough; a quietly astonishing piece of filmmaking which has taken me out of my usual rhythms to a more contemplative, philosophical head space. A transformative experience, meditative and provocative. The latter not in the sense that it confronts the viewer with arresting or difficult imagery (though it is by no means light viewing), but rather that it awakens avenues of thought that most cinema doesn’t attempt to tap into.
Set in the early 60’s, Ida tells the tale of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who has grown up at a convent. On the eve of taking her vows, she is encouraged by her mother superior to make contact with her sole living relative, a woman named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who lives nearby. Anna makes the short excursion, leaving the safety and security of the nunnery, only to be confronted with some of the more caustic realities of the world outside of her devout cocoon. Wanda is an alcoholic, prone to bringing home random men from jazz bars, weighed down by the aftershocks from World War II that permeate the land like symptoms of communal post-traumatic stress. The brittle winter around these women feels like the country itself frozen in panic, waiting for recovery.
Wanda reveals to Anna that her given name is in fact Ida, that she is of Jewish origin, and that her parents were murdered and the location of their final resting place is unknown. Anna’s unilateral Catholic upbringing is suddenly blurred out at the borders and she begins a journey of self-discovery. This isn’t the only revelation Wanda brings Anna; her exposure to the world awakens questions already blossoming about her own sexuality and susceptibility to ‘sinful thoughts’. Anna initially rejects these things, but as her sphere of experience widens these questions are brought nearer to the forefront of her mind. Together the two women search for the bones of their kin, unearthing a strain of local anti-Semitism as they strive toward grace and closure.
Pawlikowski approaches the solemnity of the subject matter via a classical 1.33:1 aspect ratio and crisp black and white imagery. However, if the above brief suggests that the film ought to be filed beside the likes of Schindler’s List in the pantheon of modern-day addresses on Holocaust horrors, then you’d do well to think again. This is not such a film, though the shadows of WW2 hang heavy over proceedings. Instead this is a more personal journey, one more concerned with the intimate scale upon which history contorts us. It is a deeply empathetic film, one that moves with a quiet determination (i.e. it’s very, very slow) and one in which moments of purity are conjured through the always-disarming compositions.
In fact if I’ve seen a more consistently beautiful film than Ida recently, I can’t recall what it might’ve been. Pawlikowski rarely if ever moves his camera (the final shot is the only instance I can recall), instead affording us shot after shot of carefully framed images. Frequently the characters in the film are crammed into the very bottom of the frame, ceilings and skylines dwarfing them. Initially this seemed as though they were hemmed in, crushed by the world around them, but as the film progresses the sense becomes more that they are being drawn to scale, that Pawlikoski is positioning them against the scope of the heavens above them. The religious connotations are pressed onto the picture through this persistently off-kilter framing.
Yet Ida makes no judgements, and certainly, as Anna’s ‘awakening’ (for want of a better term) continues in the latter half of the film, Pawlikoski is careful not to suggest that she has been in any way corrupted, or for that matter that sides as didactic as good and evil exist in the world of self-discovery. Ida suggests openly that the ‘sinful thoughts’ Wanda alludes to are nothing of the kind; merely the patterns by which we learn to shape ourselves. Nevertheless there is a sense of breathtaking revelation the first time that Anna releases her hair from the tight-fit of her omnipresent wimple (two words I didn’t think I’d be combining anytime soon).
This sense of subtle change, of occasion, is made so evocative not just though the precision framing of the subject, but by the subject herself. Trzebuchowska is an astonishing find, and she quietly, calmly dominates every frame she features in. Her eyes like limitless black pools reflecting a sadness and acceptance of the world wise beyond her years. She conjures to mind the open-hearted tenderness of Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Though as with every detail of this heart-stopping film, she is subdued, measured, contained rather than histrionic. At her most arresting, one senses an understanding of the world in her crystalline features, as much a mix of sadness as of love.
Ida will not suit all tastes. It is defiantly, brazenly ‘art-house’ and approached in the wrong frame of mind will prove too much of a slow-burn for many. Yet when treated as a serious piece of artistic expression there can be few peers to it on 2014’s release schedule, and it positions Pawlikoski as a formidable presence on the European cinematic landscape. That it stands up when compared not only to Dreyer but also to the likes of Godard or Bergman announces the quiet, soulful power of this portrait. It may appear cold as the snow, but there’s an undeniable warmth beneath that frozen surface. Humanity colours the film where Pawlikoski has left it monochrome. Until it feels disarmingly personal. Film rarely achieves such understated connections.