2014 - 82 minutes
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Joanna Kulig
As Ida opens, a young nun touches up the paint on the face of a Jesus statue. She and a few fellow sisters then carry the effigy and put it back in position on the convent grounds. She performs maintenance on the statue and carries its weight because it is her duty.
Engagement, service, and mission are key elements throughout director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski’s beautifully shot film, each frame constructed like a postcard capturing a snapshot on the road to self-discovery. The stark, defined photography draws us in though assured composition and heightens the anxieties in a tale where conflicts are simple but their resonations are deep.
It’s 1960s Poland; the nun is Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska). Brought to the convent as an orphan, service to God is all she knows. Before taking her final vows, Anna is urged to visit her only known relative. City-dwelling Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) answers her apartment door wearing a robe with cigarette in hand. The former judge turned promiscuous alcoholic reveals that Anna was born as Ida and has a Jewish heritage. The two women search for answers regarding the fate of Anna’s parents, road tripping to the Polish countryside, finding resistance from the owners of their old family farm and locals uneager to broach the subject. Wanda’s courtroom experience kicks in and she becomes dogged, while Anna mostly observes and finds herself drawn to a saxophonist (Adam Szyszkowski) playing gigs in the area.
Ida doesn’t dwell on the mystery, instead focusing on the reality learned along the way. One probably doesn’t have to think too hard to realize the perils facing Jews in Poland at the mid-point of the 20th century. For Anna, this is a personal voyage, an accidental quest for knowledge of oneself and not necessarily for justice or peace of mind. Wanda’s interests revolve more around traditional closure, challenging perceived liars and perhaps looking for wisdom that can take the place of booze and one-night stands.
Pawlikowski avoids weepy melodrama through the stunning black and white production, using the visuals to tell the story just as much as the conversations. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a tight 80 minutes without any overwrought filler. Every frame could, and deserves to be, studied. The film isn’t completely immune frank symbolism, however. The glints in Anna’s marble-like black eyes are prioritized a bit too heavily at times, and there is a “lettering her hair down” moment that’s on-the nose. But these are minor quibbles, and the craft masterfully communicates its themes. For instance, the director often places Anna on the bottom or pushed into the corners of the 1.37 aspect ratio, suggesting a higher power or purpose in the vertical framing.
Trzebuchowska and Kulesza successfully retreat into their characters’ personalities, being expressive without being exaggerated as their faces are studied dutifully by the camera. It’s about the experience for Anna and Wanda -- and for us -- and that experience has profound effect. In the end, as the static camera shakes for the first time and a path is being traversed, we are fulfilled even though the journey for Anna/Ida is just beginning.