Shot in striking black-and-white, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film ‘Ida’ is a masterpiece. His minimalist style of filmmaking is brilliant. The story has all the elements necessary for a great art film. The cinematography is haunting and takes on a quality of monochrome still photography. Every shot adds texture and emotion to the scenes. Nothing is wasted. The main characters are confronted with strong themes of identity, faith and tragic loss. The two lead actresses give powerful and unforgettable performances. ‘Ida’ is worth the journey for every cinephile. It also deserves Oscar consideration as one of the Best Foreign Language Films of the year.
Anna (played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) leads a quiet, cloistered life in a convent. The opening sequence has no dialogue. As the 18-year-old novitiate goes through her day, we get a glimpse into her sheltered life. She paints a statue of Jesus, feeds chickens, and then with the help of two other young novices, they resurrect the life-size image on the snowy grounds of the convent. Other scenes show the nuns praying in chants and the girls eating their soup in silence together at the dinner table. Anna’s protected world is turned upside down when the Mother Superior summons and instructs her to meet with her only living relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza).
The story is set in 1960s Communist Poland. Anna is one week away from saying her vows to become a nun and now she has to meet with her Aunt. The reunion is not a friendly one. When she gets to Wanda’s house, she discovers a hard woman that loses herself in alcohol and promiscuous sex with men. At first, it is not clear if she makes a living as a prostitute. It’s an interesting ambiguity but as we get to know Wanda, we find out there is a lot more than meets the eye with this cynical woman. When she first meets Anna, she rudely lashes out, “We’ve had our little family reunion. I must get dressed. I’m late.” After a cigarette and a few shots of liquor, Wanda has a change of heart and wants to help her niece.
This is the brilliance of the story. Instead of dwelling on the atrocities of World War II Poland, we get to witness the historical despair through these two women. It’s a journey. Wanda sees Anna’s deceased mother in her eyes. When Wanda reveals to Anna some startling news about her, they set out together on a road trip to the family’s hometown. Without visually getting into the Nazis invasion with tanks and destruction, the story delicately shows us the despair the war caused them on a personal level. The two women search for the truth about what happened to their family during the occupation of Poland. Pawlikowski meticulously shows us the character arcs of the women as they come together in order to go through the pain of mourning and closure. Anna represents good and Wanda represents sin. We find out Wanda was a magistrate during the war and responsible for the deaths of her own people. Her guilt is palpable and performed magnificently by Kulesza.
There is a vital subplot when Anna meets a hitchhiker on their road trip. They pick up the saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) who happens to have a music gig at the hotel they are staying at in the village. He invites them to listen to his band. There is an immediate attraction between Anna and the handsome musician. Although Anna wants to become a nun, as a beautiful young woman, she has been having thoughts of carnal knowledge. As Anna takes off her nun’s habit, she reveals her gorgeous hair and stunning good looks. She wears a dress and listens to the band play the music of John Coltrane. The jazz music perfectly adds dimension to the story. Trzebuchowska was the perfect choice for the leading role. Her pale skin, penetrating eyes and dimpled chin make her look like a living Madonna. She is captivating to watch. ‘Ida’ is one of those art films that will linger with you after you exit the theater. It is a beautifully poetic film that should not be missed. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/oXhCaVqB0x0.