Polish film “Ida” looks so simple and concise that describing its plot will not be enough to explain why it is one of the most memorable experiences of this year. I initially observed the movie with admiration toward its impressive technical aspects, and then I appreciated more how its distinctive approach actually supports and enhances its haunting story about a young woman who suddenly has to deal with the past she never knew before.
In the beginning, we slowly gather the background information as watching a young novice nun named Anna(Agata Trzebuchowska) and the daily scenes at her convent. It is 1962 in Poland, and the country has been under the communist rule for more than 10 years, but the world inside the convent does not seem to be affected much by this social/political change. The opening scene shows Anna and other novice nuns doing a polishing job on a Christ statue they are going to fix on the ground later, and then we see them going through daily routines with others in the solemn environment of the convent which feels like a throwback to the medieval time.
While preparing for taking vows with other young nuns, Anna comes to learn a surprise fact about her family from Mother Superior. As an orphan who has been raised in the convent since she was very young, she thought she did not have any close family member(she only knew that her parents died a long time ago), but now Mother Superior informs her that Anna actually has an aunt, and she advises Anna that she should visit her aunt before taking vows, although her aunt has never attempted to meet Anna during all those years even though she knows where Anna has been.
Though she is not very cordial to Anna when she sees her niece at the door of her apartment, Wanda(Agata Kulesza), who was once a prominent prosecutor for her communist government but now becomes stuck in the position of a local judge presiding over trivial cases while going through the tarnished lifestyle of a high-functioning alcoholic, tells her niece a couple of important things she ought to know; Anna is Jewish, and her real name was Ida(it is pronounced as “Ee-da”, not “Aye-da”, by the way). Her parents were killed during the World War II, and even Wanda does not know where they were buried, let alone what really happened to them during the war.
And that is the start of their journey into the past. They go to the town where Anna’s parents lived. They meet the current owner of the farm which once belonged to Anna’s family. They try to search for a man who may give the information about how Anna’ parents were killed and buried. At one point, they come upon a hitchhiking tenor saxophonist(Dawid Ogrodnik) on the road, and they meet this young guy again while they are staying at the hotel where he performs jazz music with his fellow musicians, which manages to brighten up the mood a bit among the hotel guests. Anna is mostly quiet and wordless, but it looks like his presence touches something inside her, like her hidden past shakes her idea of who she is.
Maintaining its slow, contemplative pace, the movie frequently observes its characters from the distance, and the stark but stunningly gorgeous black and white cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal further emphasizes the barren, oppressive mood surrounding them through its precise, thoughtful scene composition. The characters are usually placed in the lower part of the screen during many notable shots in the film, and they seldom occupy the center of the composition even during close-up shots. Our eyes become more aware of the empty space above their heads, and this curious vertical composition amplifies the somber feeling of oppression in the screen of 1.33:1 ratio, which sometimes makes the characters look like inconsequential prisoners of their gray world.
And their world still has its past sleeping below its surface, as implied through the minor characters who are not so willing to talk about their time during the war. Although it does not look directly at that atrocious past behind its story, the movie gradually lets us see it through its main characters’ journey, and it firmly keeps its restrained attitude even when they finally arrive at the emotional end of their journey. The camera merely observes them and a certain character during one important scene in the middle of some forest, but there is a quiet but palpable sense of sorrow and guilt on the screen, and we come to reflect on how people can be capable of anything during war.
The movie depends a lot on the solid performances by its two lead actresses, and Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska complement each other well as two people who cannot possibly be more different from each other despite their family tie. Trzebuchowska, a non-professional performer who was literally cast by chance, brings unadulterated qualities to her reserved but effective performance. There are some elusive moments which make us wonder about what is going on inside her character, but Trzebuchowska’s engaging natural presence constantly holds our attention as the center of the story, and we come to understand more about Anna’s circumstance even when she does not reveal a lot to us in her usual docile appearance.
On the opposite, Kulesza, a veteran Polish actress with considerable acting career, makes a nice contrast to her co-actress Trzebuchowska. We later comes to learn that there is a motive behind Wanda’s sudden decision to help finding the burial site of her niece’s parents, and Kulesza’s nuanced acting subtly reveals the complex sides of her character who eventually admits to herself that she still has a heart to feel more pain behind her jaded cynicism hardened by her own difficult, complicated past. She was a victim of the war, but then she was also a perpetrator who drove a number of people to death during the Stalinist purge in the 1950s, and there is a brief moment when she bitterly tells her niece about the time when she was nicknamed “Red Wanda”.
The movie is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who has established his directing career outside his country through several films including “Last Resort”(2000) and “My Summer of Love”(2004). I only watched his previous film “The Woman in the Fifth”(2011), but that was enough for me to see that he is a talented director to watch; I felt baffled and confused at times while watching that mystery film, but I was also intrigued by its odd mood and the elusive undercurrent behind it, and it was sort of a satisfying experience despite its ambiguous ending which baffled me again.
“Ida”, which is recently selected as Poland’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, is a movie which is easier to admire than like, but its austere presentation of the Polish society in the 1960s works as an interesting look into the past, and you may notice an ironic parallel between its heroine and her society, in which communism and religion somehow co-exist side by side among its people just like her Jewish heritage and Catholic upbringing inside her. The movie is a stunning achievement worthy of more attention, and it will be quite a rewarding experience if you are ready to immerse yourself into it.