Ida: A Slow, Beautiful Film

IDA (2013)
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowksi
PG-13 (Brief nudity), in Polish, 80 mins.
* * * *

Pretty in Black & White
Ida is the story of an eighteen-year-old orphan about to take her vows as a nun. It's set in 1962, is in Polish, and filmed in black and white. Sound compelling? Stay with me, because I'm about to proclaim it on one of the year's better films.

Our protagonist, Ida Lebenstein (Agata Trzebuch), was raised in a Catholic orphanage after being left on a church doorstep during World War II. All she's ever known are the silences and routines of her quiet rural convent and these seem to fit her demure personality just fine. For the luminous18-year-old novitiate, the process of becoming a nun seems as natural as getting up in the morning.

Enter a complication. A lost relative surfaces before Ida dons her habit and her Mother Superior demands that Ida spend time with her before becoming a Bride of Christ. So Eva leaves her insular world and travels to Lodz to meet her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who shows about as much interest in Ida as a cow shows for math. Wanda is the anti-Ida–a weathered, cynical, promiscuous, boozy, loud chain-smoker. Gruz pays just enough attention to Ida to ridicule her faith and to inform her that she was born Jewish and that the two of them are the only family members to survive the Polish Holocaust. Ida is more appalled by her aunt than by her own biographical details, but she would like to find her parents' graves. Thus begins the literal search to see where the skeletons are buried, and one of the oddest road trip films of recent memory.

This is far more than a mismatched buddy film. It's sweetness versus bile, faith versus angst, purity versus carnality, and the past versus a drear present. It's a come-to-reckoning-with-the-Holocaust film, but it's also one that highlights the wreckage of Stalinism. Immediately after the war, Wanda was a famed prosecutor and defender of Poland's communist regime, but her fame, beauty, and the promises of a socialist utopia have faded. Director Pawlikowski chose wisely in opting to film in black and white. He uses shadows to enhance both the mysteries of faith (variously defined) and the despair of postwar Poland–its filthy farmhouses, drab apartments, improvised infrastructure, and ruined buildings. He is adroit in his use of chiaroscuro, especially when he bounces light off of Ida's pale features and lets it drain into the gloom. His studies of shadow and streaked beams are evocative of Bergman's 1963 masterpiece Winter Light. Also like that film, there are long dialogue-free silences. These, of course, befit the novitiate Ida, but they also serve to underscore just how little she has in common with Wanda, and the what's-there-to-say bleakness of Poland. 

Wanda, of course, tries to convince Ida to let down her red hair and, at the very least, have a little rumspringa before she cloisters herself. Hearing John Coltrane's music played by a handsome saxophone player (Dawid Ogodnik) does arouse sensual yearnings within Ida, but you'll have to watch the film to find out about Ida's family, the source of Wanda's anger, and how Ida resolves her mixed feelings. I will say this–the ending is pitch perfect. Pay attend to the answer to Ida's question "And then what?"

Both the character Ida and the namesake film are absolutely gorgeous, even though we spend a "long" 80 minutes in the theater. Both the film and Agata Trzebuch recently won prizes from the Polish Film Academy. Rightly so.

Rob Weir

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