Ida is one of the most visually striking films you’re likely to see at theaters this year. The film’s slow pace and quiet characters give you plenty of time to stare in wonder at the beautifully framed shots that comprise it. Director Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal (replacing cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski soon after filming began) make bold use of a 4:3 aspect ratio and the full tonal range of black and white photography.
If you skipped ahead after reading at “slow pace,” then farewell; this movie is not for you. Students of photography, however, should go buy a ticket immediately. Those looking for a good story and interesting characters? ...Perhaps.
Before You Join...
PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking
As Anna, Agata Trzebuchowska has striking dark eyes and a dimple in her chin. She has a face you could get lost in for hours at a time. Her performance makes Anna all the more mysterious; she rarely speaks and she wears a blank look that would make Garbo proud. How she wears her hair remains a mystery for most of the film; she almost always wears her initiate’s habit, including a full head scarf.
Anna is about to take her vows at an abbey in post-World-War-II Poland. Before the sisters will let Anna join the order, they ask her to go visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), the last remaining member of her family. As anna arrives, a man is dressing to leave. Wanda is playing music and smoking. Clearly Anna and Wanda have different ideas about life.
Wanda reveals the first surprise of the film when she asks Anna why a Jew would want to join a Catholic abbey. Of course! Anna’s heritage explains why she has no family. Did she even know she was Jewish?
Wanda thinks that Anna ought to find out more about their family before she takes her vows and disappears into a nun’s life forever.
Witness to History
There are other revelations later. Polish audiences will probably be less surprised than non-Poles at the situations a Jewish orphan in the 1950s and ’60s might find while digging into her family’s past. Ida is good at provoking an audience to thought, then backing away to give you time to ponder what you’ve been exposed to.
Anna quietly absorbs the information and history she finds. She seems inclined to be a witness to history rather than an active participant in life.
Wanda thinks Anna should try some carnal sin so that she’ll know the price of her vows. A young man, a saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), makes an impression on Anna with his wistful rendition Charlie Parker’s ballad Naima. Anna is so serious and quiet; she seems to wear her habit so naturally, that it’s jarring to see her try to act like a “regular” young lady. Without her habit, she looks like a completely different person.
Ida is a slow-moving film, bordering on minimalism. Editor Jaroslaw Kaminski has a knack for letting a scene run long enough to raise all sorts of questions — but not so long as to provide all the answers. And each scene seems packed with amazing photography.
Outdoors, extreme wide shots dwarf the figures and their boxy Soviet cars. Closeups on Trzebuchowska’s face — with her black, consuming eyes, her serious visage, and her shadowed dimple — are as magnetic as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Zal and Lenczewski often frame the characters such that their heads are placed low in the frame, which feels wrong by conventional standards. The effect is jarring and self-conscious. The upper part of the frame is often filled with architectural details emphasized with textured light and shadow. Are the figures diminished in favor of the more permanent structures they inhabit? ...by buildings and landscapes that will outlive the characters in the bottom of the frame?
Ida is more impressive cinematically than narratively. It’s not that Anna’s story is boring. Her search for family is like eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Yet somehow Anna’s takes in the overwhelming information stoically. She makes for a fascinating character study.
Still, Ida is a hard sell for binge-watching Netflixers. If Ida appeals, do yourself a favor and see it in a theater, away from distractions. You’ll enjoy it all the more. And if you have a short attention span, then ... never mind, you’ve probably already stopped reading.