IDA (2013, Poland)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1962, Anna is about to take vows as a nun when she learns a family secret from her only living relative. Both women embark on a journey to discover their family story and where they belong.

There are countless movies I’ve seen that remind me why I love the movies.  Ida is the first one I’ve seen in a very long time that reminds me why I love Ansel Adams.  Shot in stunning black-and-white and in the old “Academy” format with black bars on both sides – basically a square screen space instead of a rectangle – Ida is composed almost completely of static shots that have been framed in such a way that you could select almost any shot from any scene, frame it, and hang it in a museum.  Frankly, the beauty of the film is breathtaking.  If the story is a tad shallow or cryptic, I can live with it because it was such a pleasure just to drink in the visuals.

Anna is an orphaned novice nun in a convent in Poland in 1962.  She is on the verge of taking her vows when she gets a letter from an aunt she never met or knew existed, but who suddenly wants to meet her.  Anna travels to the city to meet the aunt, Wanda, who rather coldly informs Anna that the parents she never met were Jews who were killed during the war.  Anna is not Anna, but Ida.  Wanda confirms this by noticing Anna/Ida’s red hair and commenting that her parents had red hair.  Ida wants to find her parents’ bodies, so she and Wanda begin a search that will reveal a lot more than just final resting places and familial closure.

At one point, Wanda and Ida have a conversation about the vows Ida is about to take.  Prior to this conversation, Ida has observed that Wanda drinks, smokes, and appears to bring various men home to bed with her on a somewhat regular basis.  Wanda simmers under Ida’s blank but judgmental stare.

Wanda asks her, “Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?”

“About carnal love?”
“That’s a shame.  You should try.  Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”

My knee-jerk reaction was that Wanda is clearly trying to get a rise out of Ida, but I admire the sentiment and the logic behind that statement.  How does one know what they’re giving up if they’ve never experienced it to begin with?  It’s like a truism: how can you appreciate light if you’ve never been in the dark?  But it’s not that simple.  I do not smoke because I want to be healthy, or at least a little healthier.  You could say that I’ve “given up” smoking, but I’ve never experienced it.  Does it count as giving something up if you never took it up in the first place?  It’s an interesting conundrum, one that Ida has no real response to.

But I want to get back to the imagery.  That is the real draw of this film for me.  The only other film I’ve seen that really captures this same vibe is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.  There is one shot that captures Ida and a young musician she and Wanda meet during their journey.  Ida and the young man are having a conversation outside of a small ballroom, sitting in front of doors and windows with some ironwork.  The two of them are framed so they are very small at the bottom center, while the rest of the frame is filled with these black silhouettes, backlit by the ballroom fluorescents.  When they speak, the English subtitles are displayed, not at the bottom of the screen, but near the top across a black bar formed by the dividing line between the window and the transom window above it:

The unexpected placement of the subtitle took me out of the movie, but only momentarily because, again, what a shot.  They are so small in the frame, especially Ida, and the world around her is so huge.  This visual theme is repeated over and over again, and not just with Ida.  When they are driving down a country road, the static shot is not just of the road, but of the trees towering on either side, and the road itself receding into the distance towards the bottom right corner of the screen.  It’s magnificent, and my words are not doing it justice.  You’ll have to see for yourself.

When it comes to the story…to say the dialogue is minimal is, appropriately, an understatement.  The viewer is asked to do some heavy lifting because Ida says very little.  I guess it’s a bit like a Rorschach test.  We observe Ida in a situation, something happens, she says nothing, but proceeds to do something, and we are left to wonder why she does it.

Take that scene with the musician.  Earlier, Ida had been in an argument with Wanda about Wanda’s loose morals.  Wanda asserts that even Jesus loved Mary Magdalene and tries to look up the story in Ida’s Bible, but Ida grabs it from her and storms out of the room.  Later we see she has gone downstairs to the club to meet with the musician in front of those windows.  Why?  It’s up to us to answer the question.  Maybe she’s lived her life believing one thing, and now suddenly her entire belief system is being shaken up, and perhaps this is the only way she can be a rebel before taking her vows.  And she’s just talking to the guy.

The movie is full of moments like that.  An unexpected death occurs.  Ida’s response is to get dressed up and go dancing.  Say what?  When you watch the movie, we’ll discuss what was going in Ida’s head during those moments.  I’m not a hundred percent sure.

By the time the movie’s over, we’ve seen two graves, a suicide, a nun bathing herself, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen outside of a Kubrick film.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski is virtually unknown to me, although he was up for Best Director in 2019 (losing to, how about that, Alfonso Cuarón for Roma).  His narrative method is a little oblique for my tastes, but his visual style is superb in every way.  I’m glad it’s in my collection.  Whenever I’m in the mood for a visual feast, Ida will do the trick.

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