This hauntingly beautiful black-and-white film from Paweł Pawlikowski is, along with Star Maps, one of two outstanding films now in general release after the festival that look even fresher and clearer in a rerun. Pulling off the extraordinary trick of looking like it was made when it was set (early ’60s), ida feels more like a restored and rediscovered classic than a new movie. I first saw it at the London Film Festival last year; Revisited, Ida delivers her anger and pain with a new intensity, while lowering the ambient temperature even further. There really is a bitter winter chill here: it’s lit by the stark whiteness of snow in daylight, and you can feel the chill in those drafty farmyards and churches. this movie has its own kind of freezer burn.
Agata Trzebuchowska is wildly mysterious as a 17-year-old novice in a remote convent: she has the impassiveness and inscrutability of youth. She is about someone to whom, literally, nothing has happened in her life, and now we will see her react, or try to hide her reaction, in the face of an avalanche of momentous events. Ella Ida has something of the classic Polish film school, along with hints of Béla Tarr and Aki Kaurismäki. the cinematography shows a penchant for alienated compositions, in which faces are low down in the frame with an oppressive blankness high up, though the images in the convent often resemble something vermeer. The biggest influence is probably François Truffaut and the 400 hits of him; In fact, the final shot of her could represent a subtle commentary or variation on Truffaut’s last moments of the film.
It’s 1962, and Anna is about to take her final vows at the convent where strangers orphaned her in 1945. But Anna has a surviving relative, and the Mother Superior, who has clearly guessed more about Anna’s background than which she admits, she insists that she contact this woman before she makes the irrevocable decision. The relative turns out to be her aunt, Wanda Gruz, tremendously played by Agata Kulesza—a worldly, hard-drinking woman who lives alone. “Didn’t they tell you who I am and what I do?” she asks, welcoming ida into her dressing room, smoking, as a gentleman caller makes her exit off camera. pawlikowski allows us to jump to conclusions about wanda, and then backtrack: she is actually a state magistrate and fanatic. Sleepy and drunk Wanda reveals the truth to Ella’s niece: Anna’s original name was Ida Lebenstein and she is Jewish. Wanda proposes they take a road trip together to find out what became of Ida’s parents during the war. It’s something that Wanda herself has clearly been dreading, and she has also been dreading Ida’s arrival in her life. She must now confront her own memories of her, and Ida’s suddenly shattered innocence is a terrible burden.
His is a journey into the heart of Poland’s church and state, into its Catholicism and anti-Semitism. the nun’s habit and her youthful, almost childlike demeanor command a reflex of respect on the part of those she meets: clearly, the prestige she confers is not to be abandoned lightly: it is all that she has. Instead, the hot-tempered Wanda stirs up the past and irritates everyone with tactless questions about Ida’s Jewish parents. she knows, and they know, that there were collaborators, but also those who helped and hid the Jews, and still others whose behavior was ambiguous. The end of the war is the recent past, although the early 1960s are a period when youth culture begins to make itself felt: they pick up a hitchhiking jazz saxophonist (dawid ogrodnik), who falls in love obviously one way.
The two women are roommates, aunt and niece, almost mother and almost daughter. the generation gap between them seems insurmountable, as does the gap between those who lived through the horrors of war and the new generation, coming of age in a time of (relative) peace, but in the dull and dumbfounded complacency of the pax. soviet and there is no easy friendship, sentimentally conceived, between the two women.
ida is a compelling film that accomplishes a lot in a short time. the performances are superb and the sense of location and period miraculous. It could be Pawlikowski’s masterpiece, but I feel that this director, who is only 57 years old, still has more to say.