By Matthew E. Milliken
June 13, 2014
Ida, the 2013 film which director Pawel Pawlikowski wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is the powerful story of a young woman who must grapple with her family’s shadowed past and the fallout of the previous generation’s war.
The movie, which is set in Poland in the mid-1960s, revolves around Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is poised to become a nun at the rural convent where she has apparently been raised since infancy. Days before Anna is scheduled to take her vows, her mother superior tells her that the convent had repeatedly written to her aunt, asking her to pick up the girl; the aunt, her only living family member, declined to do so. The nun vaguely but firmly instructs the Anna to travel to her relative’s city apartment. She tells the young woman to stay there as she needs.
The aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is a stern, trim figure who initially has little use for any echoes of her past. But she soon reverses course, welcoming Anna into her home and introducing the girl to some of their shared history. Wanda, a lifelong city dweller whose sister was Anna’s mother, agrees to drive the young woman to the small town where her parents were farmers before the Nazi invasion.
Anna’s parents — who, unbeknownst to her, were Jews — are dead, but no one knows where they are buried. The two women decide to find the grave, visiting the people who took over the property that once belonged to Anna’s family and tracking down the ailing elderly man who had once protected them from the crematoria of the Holocaust.
During their quest, the two women pick up a hitchhiker. This handsome young saxophone player and jazz enthusiast seems to stir carnal longing in the painfully self-effacing Anna. And when the journey comes to an end, the two women must decide how to deal with their newfound knowledge.
The choices they make are devastating to any viewer who has become interested in the fates of these complicated, tough yet vulnerable people — hardbitten Wanda and seemingly innocent Anna. And yet, especially in the latter woman’s case, it’s hard to envision the movie concluding in any other manner and still remaining faithful to the narrative that develops over the course of the 80-minute feature.
Without giving anything about the ending away, it’s not clear how the sheltered innocent could ever fit into the disorderly, grungy secular world — and yet the thought of the young woman spending decades eating meals in the convent’s isolation and silence is cringe-inducing, too.
Ida’s intriguing story and excellent performances are complicated by its restrained visual syntax. Pawlikowski and his cinematographers, Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, present the story in a series of static black-and-white shots. The only shot in which I noticed camera movement is the final one, in which the filmmakers strive (and often fail) to keep Anna in focus as she walks along a road at dusk.
In fact, although she is the fulcrum that sets the entire movie in motion, Anna is often visually marginalized — pushed to the edge of the frame, hidden in part by a tree or other object, partially obscured by reflections on the glass through which the camera gazes upon her. These techniques constantly yet subtly remind us that Anna’s life is guided and confined by war, religion and other factors that are far beyond her control.
Ida is a quiet, understated movie, but its impact is much stronger than that of big-budget summer releases packed with colorful computer graphics and loud explosions. This tale of the price that youth pay for the sins of elders is at once haunting and wonderful.