“The theme has haunted me for years: what does it mean to be Christian? Can you be a good Christian without being Polish Catholic? Is religion a tribal demarcation or is it something spiritual within you? In central and Eastern Europe, religion tends to be a tribal marking of some kind, which is deeply un-Christian. If anything, Christ’s teachings are fantastically universal. What defines identity? The blood that you have? The faith you grew up with or your self-understanding? Can you escape all of these definitions and live a purely spiritual existence? Poland is full of these questions.” – Pawel Pawlikowski, writer/director of Ida, in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine
Most often, I feel that my job as a critic isn’t to convince you to see films. Rather, my job is to help you to better see films you are already seeing. Every once in a while though, I see a more obscure film that I think is especially worth your attention, and I make it my goal to encourage you to give it a try. Given the new ways films are being distributed, these little films are thankfully more available than ever.
Ida is such a film. Though its language is Polish, though its cinematography is staid and black and white, though it wears its admiration for European masters like Bresson and Kieslowski on its sleeve, and though it stars not a single actor you’ve ever heard of, I think Ida is a film you should seek out whatever your typical film watching preferences. Ida enjoyed a brief art house theatrical run in the early summer, but it recently appeared on VOD, so there’s nothing stopping you from seeing it now.
The film concerns a soon-to-be nun—a novice—named Anna who, a week before she is to take her vows, learns that she is really Ida, the orphaned daughter of a Jewish couple killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland in WWII. Her mother superior sends Ida to meet her only living relative, her aunt Wanda, before she will allow her to don the habit permanently.
Wanda is as fascinating a character as Anna. A judge who rose to prominence in the years after WWII by harshly prosecuting Polish citizens who were Nazi sympathizers during the war, ‘Red’ Wanda is everything Ida isn’t – aggressive, urbane, promiscuous, (perhaps overly) fond of alcohol, and self-consciously secular. Together, they set off to uncover the facts of Ida’s parents’ murder as a couple of oil and water detectives, at once at odds with each other and with the general Polish citizenry who are still antagonistic towards Jews (though this antagonism is clearly rooted in personal guilt instead of blind racism). And that’s just the first half of the film. The second half follows the women as they each wrestle with the consequences of what they discover.
It’s an immediately arresting premise, and one rife with enough personal, societal, and theological complications to sustain a plot. The film’s outstanding performances and cinematographic beauty are somewhat of a bonus, but what a bonus they are. Both Agatas, Trzebuchowska and Kulesz as Anna and Wanda, respectively, are fantastic. Trzebuchowska plays Anna as a cipher, though we quickly learn she only does what she thinks is right. She is as she appears. Kulesz’s ‘Wanda’ is the opposite. Apparently unguarded in all things, she harbors deep pain. Kulesz reveals that pain subtly. If you blink, you might miss Wanda’s emotional shifts, and you’ll wonder why her character acts as she does in the next scene.
Writer/director Pawel Pawilkowski and cinematographer Lucasz Zal frame these performances in a way that feels “artsy.” It’s certainly affected. The camera doesn’t move, and the characters are almost always positioned in only the bottom third of the screen. And the film is in black and white, though “grey and grey” might be a better descriptor. I thought each frame was always interesting to look at, and I like the way the constricted cinematography mirrors Anna’s austere nature. It very obviously means something when the camera moves near the end of the film.
I like the artful obviousness of this film. Ida would make a great primer for anyone interested in learning about the charms of “art house” cinema. The questions it asks about religion (Christianity in particular), identity, roots, spirituality, and the co-mingling and co-influencing of all of the above are common at the art house. So is Ida’s reliance on an affected cinematic style.
Yes, Ida is “slow” compared to most mainstream cinema, but its characters are as broadly drawn, its stakes are as clearly stated, and its emotional payoff is much more profound. Ida also leaves you with an obvious question about its protagonist that ought to carry you into conversation about and beyond the film. I can’t recommend it enough, and I hope you’ll give it a try. As I said before, it’s available via multiple VOD services. A group of friends could watch this together for a third the price of a single ticket at your local megaplex. Take a chance on Ida. You won’t be sorry.
You might also enjoy these reviews of Ida: