IDA Review: Crosses to Bear
Recently, I participated in an email exchange with a writer from Man I Love Films, where we debated several film topics. In the course of that discussion, I mentioned that in 2013 I had seen 180 new releases and of those, I gave only two – Blue is the Warmest Color and All Is Lost – a perfect 5/5 stars. Perhaps I’m a tougher judge than most, but some contemporaries of mine give away perfect scores like they’re food samples at a grocery store. I can’t do that. A perfect score should be earned by a perfect film, and anything less should be criticized as such. I didn’t see either of those perfect films until they went into wider US release in the fourth quarter of 2013, meaning I spent more than nine months searching for perfection.
This year, I found perfection in less than six.
In Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland. She has lived at the convent where she studies since she was an orphaned baby. Weeks away from taking her final vows, Anna receives word that her only known surviving relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), has been in contact with the convent. The nuns think before Anna takes her vows, she should travel beyond her cloistered environs to meet her aunt.
At her aunt’s apartment, Anna learns some staggering truths about her past. Her name isn’t Anna, it’s Ida … Ida Lebenstein. She is not Catholic, she is Jewish, as she was when she was a baby during World War II, when the Nazis occupied Poland. Her late family’s remains are buried at an unknown location.
Ida wants to close an unexpectedly open chapter in her life before she gives herself wholly to God. Wanda wants to heal a decades-old wound before she can continue with her day-to-day life. Two women who were strangers just days before are now dependent on each other in a way neither had anticipated.
The brilliance of Ida exists within its understated elegance, which both belies its weighty subject matter and showcases it, layering themes of contrast and burden throughout the film to great effect.
The hook that gets you in the door, of course, is the contrast of a novice Catholic nun learning she is Jewish just weeks before taking her vows. It’s an immense burden for Ida to bear, learning that everything she thought she knew is in fact different. Layered upon that is the emotional burden she must carry learning that her long-lost Aunt Wanda hasn’t been long-lost at all, but rather hasn’t been interested in her niece until now. In an early scene, ever-naive Ida suggests to Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) that perhaps Wanda had never received any of the convent’s letters. Mother Superior bluntly and coldly tells Ida that they know the other letters got there because Wanda replied to one of them with the visitation request. And of course this orphan, who has known nothing about her past, suddenly learns that her parents are dead, probably at the hands of the Nazis.
Wanda is not without her own burdens. Other than Ida, who was an infant at the time, she is the lone Lebenstein survivor. But how is it her sister and other family members were killed and yet she lived? As the duo gets closer to completing their search for the family’s remains, during which time Wanda shows why her nickname as a post-war prosecutor was “Red Wanda,” she struggles more with her survivor guilt, and spends her downtime falling through a cloud of cigarette smoke and splashing down in a vodka spill, a strange man ever at her side to give her pleasure, but never really to offer her comfort.
It’s almost inconceivable that this is Trzebuchowska’s first onscreen appearance. She blends beautifully a combination of wide-eyed wonder, stoic belief, and unrelenting faith, all with the hooded face of a holy ingenue. Her restraint and her subtlety are those of a seasoned actress. And then there are those mesmerizing eyes.
As Wanda, Kulesza gives a devastating performance. She is parts parent and pit bull, party gal and private eye, and through it all she must wrestle with her own haunted soul. While Ida gets the brunt of the shock, at least she lived in youthfully blissful ignorance; Wanda has been an exposed emotional nerve since the Nazi occupation.
Pawlikowski offers us two women who are so contrasted that under any other circumstances, they would never have given each other the time of day in the street. Old versus young, experienced versus naive, sinner versus saint. Even the tenets of their respective callings offer a stark contrast: Ida, the nun who has been raised judge not, versus Wanda, the prosecutor and judge who earned a reputation, a nickname, and a paycheck trading in accusations.
Yet here they are, an angel of mercy coming of age and an angel of vengeance coming to terms, forever bound by the family that no longer lives.
Other contrasts and burdens add additional layers to the story, like the differences between a son and a father, the latter of whom was instrumental in hiding Ida’s family from the Nazis during the war, and the burdens they each bear; the differences between each of the leads and a young male saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik) with the good looks and the free spirit; and even the contrasts in surroundings, with Ida hailing from a convent seemingly plopped in the middle of nowhere, and Wanda living in a crowded town.
Pawlikowski’s direction is sublime. The screenplay he co-wrote with another first-timer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is lean on dialogue but heavy on mood and emotion. He understands his actresses and their supporting cast are doing all of the work and they need a showcase for that work. What better way to do that than to exercise as little camera movement as possible. With limited exception, Pawlikowski carefully selects his frame and lets his cast work inside of it, outside of it, and through it. Every scene, every shot selection, is a living portrait, begging the viewer to take in every square inch of raw emotion captured in stark black-and-white. Heavy story, minimalist presentation, contrast.
In a crowded field of superheroes, tentpoles, bromances, YA adaptations, kiddie fare, and even indie darlings, Ida is a film that not only rises above the rest, it reminds you of how lucky you are to be a lover of film, that you have had the chance to see something as splendid as this.