December 16, 2014

Ida: What Happened, Happened

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida
Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida.

There’s a grim uncertainty to the Poland People’s Republic of the 1960s that pervades through Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida. After experiencing the horrors of Nazi occupation, the country fell under Stalinist rule until the late ‘50s when Gomulka took hold. The generations that remember the war and its aftermath still struggle to grasp what happened. Meanwhile, the young adults can live without the emotional turmoil of that experience. They’re becoming artists and musicians inspired more by John Coltrane than painful losses. Living on the sidelines is Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman preparing to take her vows as a nun. She travels to meet her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) to understand her family’s background. Anna was orphaned at a young age, and her Mother Superior requires that she learn about it before the vows. What she discovers connects back to Poland’s darkest times during World War II.

The story begins at a solemn convent as nuns place a statue of Jesus in front of the building. Back inside, they eat their bowls of soup in silence, with only the clanking of utensils piercing the quiet. Shot in striking black and white by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, the cinematography revels in the snowy bleakness. You can feel the cold air coming through the screen. It’s a striking contrast to the life of Wanda, a judge who spends her days smoking, drinking, and sleeping with random guys. Despite the comfortable accommodations, Wanda’s existence feels much drearier than the convent. She joins Anna on a road trip where both learn plenty about their family history. Anna’s parents were Jewish and forced to hide from the Nazis during the war. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and the quest to discover her parents’ resting place won’t be uplifting. On the other hand, it also reveals a side of life she hardly knew.

Pawel Pawlikowski places Anna on the edge of the frame in Ida.
Paweł Pawlikowski often places Anna on the edges of the frame.

Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) uses a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and conveys a classic feel of the time period. The black-and-white format and static camera focus our attention on the composition of each image. The camera doesn’t move until a key moment, so only the cuts change our perspective. There’s no music beyond the sounds in the story, and this choice enhances the impact of each new shot. Anna frequently stands on the edges of the frame and appears uncomfortable taking up space. She lingers away from attention and hides behind her nun’s habit. Close-ups of her face reveal beauty yet little emotion, at least for a time. Anna’s an observer who moves slowly through life and barely injects her own feelings. You can already see the ways that she’s drifting towards the quiet lives of the older nuns.

Much of the on-screen vitality comes from Agata Kulesza’s sharp performance as Wanda. She’s trying desperately to push aside terrible regret while digging into events that caused the loss. Wanda was a prosecutor in the Stalinist regime and now works as a judge. Her distant look during the courtroom proceedings reveals how little her work means. Despite pushing Anna to experience life, Wanda can barely stomach it. She’s an imposing force during their search, yet it’s often bluster. They pick up a young saxophonist named Lis who’s performing at a nearby hotel, and he brings a different vision of Poland. Anna reads the Bible in her room, yet the music downstairs is too alluring. Her quiet interest in this guy and his different world starts to reveal the young woman beneath the nun’s garb. When Anna finally removes the habit, she looks so much younger than the serious girl we’ve seen to that point.

Agata Trzebuchowska's Anna discovers the wonders of jazz in Ida.
Agata Trzebuchowska's Anna discovers the wonders of jazz in Ida.

Ida is Agata Trzebuchowska’s first role, and it’s easy to see why Pawlikowski chose her. There’s a tranquil beauty to her face that fits a girl who hasn’t been worn down by sadness. Her parents connect Anna with her past, yet she has no physical memories. On the other hand, there are few positive emotions of love and happiness. The final act gives Trzebuchowska a chance to show more from Anna than her quiet demeanor. When she lets her hair down and visits a jazz club, it’s like her first day of adulthood. Dancing to Coltraine with Lis is a perfect moment, yet it’s fleeting. We see a rare smile from Anna in bed that shows forward movement, but the next steps aren’t clear. She talks of having been nowhere, and Lis gives her an opportunity. The shots of this scene are gorgeous and showcase her newfound beauty. The challenge is discovering how Anna feels about the whole experience. Is this a brief phase or an eye-opening event? The final scenes reveal her likely choice yet feel a little hollow because it’s all so sudden. Keeping her mysterious is okay, but a few more clues would have been more impactful.

There’s a telling moment after Anna returns to the convent where she simply says “I’m not ready” to the statue of Jesus. This scene makes sense given what she’s experienced, but I didn’t really feel it. The minimalist approach from Pawlikowski and Co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz brings charm to small touches like Anna’s brief smile during the quiet meals. It’s serene but keeps us at a distance from her. There’s no separation from Wanda, and Kulesza deserves awards consideration for her confident performance. It’s easy to see the growing burden in Wanda’s every move. Despite the title, we’re just as connected with Wanda as her niece. They form an interesting bond during the road trip, and there’s hope for a true friendship. Sadly, the trials of Wanda’s past remain despite the discoveries. Her terrible loss feels more present because it’s no longer repressed from her memories. When you hear about the killings from the murderer himself, it’s hard to forget them. Wanda has found closure, but a new future may be impossible.

2 comments:

  1. I really loved this movie. It's one that unfortunately will be restricted within the foreign language category but I would love to see it get more attention come awards time.

    Loved the write-up.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. I feel like Agata Kulesza would be perfect for a Supporting Actress nomination, but it's probably just heading for a foreign language nomination. Despite making a surprising amount at the box office (nearly four million!), the profile just isn't there for a larger push.

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