A great many films coming out of Poland these days deal with World War II and the persecution of the Jews in Poland at that time (In Darkness is another notable example), but Ida, while on the surface another entry in this genre, is much more universal than I initially guessed. An illustration of the various ways in which we try to put the past and the messiness of the world behind us, Ida is anchored by two incredible performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, and Paweł Pawlikowski’s sharp, spare storytelling (it’s just 80 minutes long) keeps the story and the themes powerfully clear.
The setting is Poland in the early 60s. Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a young novitiate nun only days away from taking her vows. She was put in an orphanage as an infant and grew up in the convent. Her prioress¹ summons her and tells her that a relative of hers has been found: Wanda Gruz (Kulesza), a once-powerful judge, now an embittered alcoholic. Anna reluctantly visits her, and Wanda informs her of the truth: her birth name was Ida, and she was born to a Jewish family who were hiding from the Nazis. After this revelation, Anna prepares to return to the convent, but Wanda, taking a liking to her, encourages her to visit the town where they had hidden 20 years earlier.
Subsequently, they encounter a young musician (Dawid Ogrodnik), who charms Wanda and is charmed by Ida, and discover he’s going to the same town as they are. On arriving in the town, the locals display little memory of Wanda and Anna’s family, and the family who housed them has few answers. As Wanda searches for answers (using her judicial standing as leverage), Ida finds herself challenged by the outside world and by the musician’s attentions. Revelations ultimately come, but they are not the end of the story.
While I don’t pretend to know the religious persuasions of Pawlikowski or Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-wrote the script, from my perspective the film seems to draw a definite parallel between the withdrawal from the world implied by the taking of holy orders (at least in this case, since Anna’s convent appears to be fairly secluded) and the desire of the Polish people to forget the tragedies of the past and move on. It’s perhaps not much of a spoiler to say that, late in the film, Anna actually sets aside her habit and tries briefly to lead a secular life, but that she finds no more happiness or truth there than she did in the convent suggests that Pawlikowski and Lenkiewicz aren’t making some kind of critique of religious life, only showing it as another way of dealing with a bleak, difficult world.
And oh, Ida is set in a bleak little world indeed. Shot in black-and-white, in the square “Academy” ratio, set either in rundown rural villages or gray, dingy Communist-era structures, Ida presents the world of the convent and the outside world as being more or less equal–cold, and gray, but at least in the convent one is ostensibly protected from society’s vicissitudes, which have brought Anna and Wanda to their current position. Not just the war which tore their family apart, leaving Anna and Wanda the only survivors–and denying Anna her very identity, leaving her to grow up not knowing it–but the Cold War politics which made Wanda a feared figure in the show-trial era (“Red Wanda”) but which now leave her bitter and directionless, seeking solace in alcohol, tobacco, and one-night stands, but finding none.
To be fair, there’s a lot weighing on Wanda–she had a son who perished during the war, who died while the family was being hidden by the Sibka family. She confronts the son, Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), who claims to know nothing, then after much searching, tracks down Szymon (Jerzy Trela), Feliks’ father, who is too incoherent (they find him in the hospital) to tell her what she wants to know. Feliks finally tells Anna that he will show them the gravesite of their family if they leave his father alone and cede any claim to their old home–yet again, the desire to shut out the past, to forget, to wipe it away, takes precedence over the right to have answers.
Though Anna and Wanda get their answers, more or less, there is no sense of rebirth, no redemption for anyone–those who have done wrong are left with their guilt, and those who have been wronged are left with their pain. They cope with this pain in different ways, but ways which both suggest that, at some fundamental level, the world (or at least 1960s Poland) is just broken, and dealing with it directly is futile.
Pawlikowski’s direction and Lenkiewicz’s writing keep the film from becoming merely depressing; it has a certain amount of wry humor, much of it coming from Wanda, but some of coming from the young musician, and some of it from the contrast between Anna’s nature and that of the secular world (the film never stoops to mocking her, though). Music, at least non-diegetic music, is used quite sparingly, and most of the film is told in still, contemplative shots, almost like a Tarkovsky film at double-speed (it’s actually very Tarkovskian in nature). Efficient is the word, from the lack of unnecessary flourish in the visuals or the dialogue to the completeness of the story given the brief running time.
On first viewing, I did think the third act felt a bit protracted, as if the film didn’t quite know where to end, but in retrospect I can completely see what they were going for.
Obviously a lot of the film rides on the shoulders of Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, and they both turn in stunning work. Initially, I wasn’t completely taken with Trzebuchowska’s Anna; I thought she was self-consciously subdued and took her blank, almost deadpan nature for lazy acting. But I soon realized how perfectly she captured the inward nature of this girl, brought up essentially to be a nun, now thrust into the secular world, forced to meet a woman she does not know, forced to confront a past she does not want to claim, told she is not who she thinks she is–by all means, she should be thus.
As the film progresses and Anna gradually opens up, bit by bit, Trzebuchowska remains perfectly on point. She never betrays Anna’s nature, never goes for broad gestures or bombastic delivery, but remains true and convincing from start to finish. It’s a true less-is-more performance, and hopefully she receives some awards consideration (the Oscars are obviously out of the question, but maybe some of the smaller critics’ awards?). She definitely deserves it. (NOTE: this is also her film debut. Think about that for a second.)
Kulesza has the showier role, but even then she never lets Wanda become a cliché. She’s aware of how archetypal a pair they are–she refers to them as “the slut and the saint”–but with every cigarette and every drink (and there are a lot of both) we see all too clearly how empty Wanda’s life has become, how her reunion with Anna both brings her happiness and pain–happiness, because she is able to form a real emotional bond with someone for the first time in, probably, years, and pain, because she must again confront the tragedy of their past, and because she is…bewildered? saddened? by Anna’s decision to stay in the convent.
Again, every part of the character–the dissipation, the coercion, the brittle wit, the growing bond with Anna–is played superbly. On balance I prefer Trzebuchowska because she had a greater challenge and nailed it, but Kulesza is no less important to the success of the film, and she delivers.
I also must praise the cinematography (by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal), which often places the characters at the corners, edges, or bottom of the square frame, emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of the film’s world. The simplicity of the compositions also serves the economical storytelling, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call the film attractive, the cinematography adds greatly to its effect.
A simple story about the weight of the past and the desire to forget, Ida is as simple and poignant a film as you’ll see this year. My rambling is perhaps not the best testimonial for it, since I am wordier than it ever dares to be. My minimal issues with it aside, Ida is absolutely worth seeing–and if you can see it in a theater, so much the better.
¹Wikipedia refers to this character as a prioress. I had referred to her as a Mother Superior, but having little knowledge of Catholic custom, will defer to a more authoritative source.