There are many things that go into a movie showing up on my radar. Sometimes I’ll be interested in a movie solely because I’m already a fan of the director, sometimes it will be because it has a concept that jumps out at me, sometimes it will be because I’ve heard buzz about it from the festival circuit or in reviews, sometimes it will be a movie that has everyone on the internet talking, and sometimes it’s simply a matter of heavy studio publicity. In the case of the movie Ida it was none of these things. I’d never really heard of director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose previous films don’t seem to have made much of a splash stateside, and most of its festival buzz seemed to escape me. I finally got hip to it exactly one week before seeing it when I happened to see its trailer and was immediately intrigued by its visual style and was soon thereafter inspired to look it up on Metacritic, at which point I decided it was definitely a must see.
Set in Soviet controlled Poland during the 1960s, Ida tells the story of a young woman named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who has been living in a convent since she was orphaned at a young age. Having been orphaned at a young age, this is basically the only life she’s ever known. Before she takes her final vows, her superiors suggest that she find her surviving family members and get a better idea of what she’s leaving behind. The only surviving relative of Anna’s that they can point her to is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard drinking unmarried judge. Wanda reveals to Anna that her given name is actually Ida Lebenstein, that she’s ethnically Jewish, and that her parents and brother were killed during the course of the Second World War. Anna still has questions about her past, so she and Wanda decide to drive out to the village where Anna was born to get some more answers about the circumstances of her family’s killing.
The thing that first attracted me to Ida was its visual style, so I guess I start by talking about that. Pawlikowski clearly makes two anachronistic choices right away with his visual style by filming the movie both in Black and White and in the Academy Ratio. The choice of filming without color should seem rather obvious given the film’s subject matter and the era that it’s trying to capture, but I think it’s the way it uses that 1.33:1 ratio that really sets it apart. Using this narrow frame has become something of a trend recently. Some filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Michel Hazanavicius have used it for reasons that are purely nostalgic while others like Andrea Arnold, Gus Van Sant, and Kelly Reichardt have used it to give their films a sense of confinement that mirrors what their characters are going through. Here I think Pawlikowski’s use of the ratio skews closer to the first camp’s than the second camp’s, but he uses the frame in ways that are a little more clever than both. Rather than seemingly cutting out information, he uses the square frame as an excuse to back his camera up a lot and have his subjects fill up relatively small portions of the frame, leaving a lot more negative space than we usually see films. Tom Hooper has been doing similar things with his off-center framings, but there seems to be a bit more poetry to it here than there was in, say, Les Misérables.
Of course a big part of why the visual style works is that it doesn’t distract from the story, which is a pretty interesting exploration of Jewish identity and the lasting effects of war and tragedy. Ida is, at its core, a movie about the Holocaust even if it happens to take place after the end of that particular atrocity and doesn’t depict it on screen. Instead it views that tragedy (and the rest of World War II) as a lingering wound that continues to haunt even those people who only just learn that they were victims of it after the fact. That the film is set in a Poland which has become a proxy state of Russia with a repressive communist government as a result of that war is part of this, and another part of it is the lingering pain, guilt, and/or paranoia felt by most of the film’s characters because of this previous trauma. That these themes are set against a very personal story of a young woman at a crossroads who’s trying to figure out exactly who she is and what she wants to become makes it all the more fascinating.
So Ida has all the ingredients of a great film and yet I don’t quite think it fully achieves greatness. I think its undoing is perhaps that it’s a little too sparse for its own good. At a scant 80 minutes the film really kind of ends just when it’s really picking up steam and in some ways it kind of feels like an incomplete experience. Critics who make a habit of labeling everything over 100 minutes as “too long” (a concern usually only shared by other people for whom movie going has become a job rather than a passion) would probably balk at such a sentiment, but I really think that an extra sub-plot or character arc would have gone a long way towards making this feel like a more substantial feature. Despite that, I think this is definitely a strong movie that should be seen by many, though I’ll admit that the grouping of people who are going to be interested is probably… rather limited. You can’t really get much more arthouse than a black and white Polish movie about a nun finding herself during an identity crisis. But if you look past the film’s intimidating exterior and it’s actually more accessible than you’d think and certainly one that fans of world cinema should strongly consider.
***1/2 out of Four