By Simon Mernagh, Contributor.
In our modern age of comic book blockbusters and dystopian Y.A. adaptations, films are seldom as attention-grabbing as Ida. Shot in gloomy post-war Poland, presented with a monochrome colour palette and delivered through the classic ‘Academy’ aspect ratio (1:37:1, or 4×3), Ida’s presentation alone is a statement. Thankfully, there are swathes of substance underpinning its striking exterior.
At a snow-covered convent in post-WWII Poland, 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate nun, is sent to meet and live with her only relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), prior to fulfilling her vows. Together, they are complete antitheses: Wanda’s cynical, world-weary, and abrasive persona, fuelled by her fondness for alcohol and cigarettes (and possibly acquired during her former stint as a Stalinist judge), could hardly be further from Anna’s theological purity.
From their introductory chat in Wanda’s single-apartment kitchen, not only does Anna discover her Jewish familial roots, but she also learns of her birth name, Ida (pronounced ‘Eeda’). Having dedicated her holy sabbatical to unearthing the story of her deceased parents, what follows is a journey of revelation, at once personal, historical, and spiritual.
Every frame of Ida’s 82 minutes is brimming with details and subtleties ripe for analysis. The compact aspect ratio invariably narrows proceedings, rendering wide landscape shots tight and snug. But rather than inviting a sense of isolation or claustrophobia, by placing its characters at odd, often obscured angles in the frame, director Pawel Pawlikowski instead evokes a communal effect; vying for their place on screen, individual characters feel like pieces of an incomprehensibly huge puzzle, its surface merely scratched by the film itself.
It’s an altogether more nuanced effort from Pawlikowskias, hitherto known for his comparatively light romantic dramas (Last Resort, My Summer of Love). He describes Ida as “a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism, and music”, and much like the characters’ minimized places in the overall drama, these assorted themes remain at loggerheads throughout. Nazism clashes with Stalinism, temptation battles faith, and untold narratives are exhumed; there is a wealth of messages to be mined, and each viewer will leave with their own party bag of meaning.
Though the wintery setting, achromatic visuals, and bleak subject matter may suggest a rather icy tone, the film as a whole radiates with undeniable warmth. Ida’s newfound friendship with Aunt Wanda blossoms as they travel together, and despite clear differences in ethics and worldview, the pair grow close. There are biting insults and coming-of-age romances; even jazz features in a significant way, as Coltrane-loving saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) hitches a lift to local gigs. A primeval joy underlies the film’s chilly façade.
Almost in spite of itself, Ida remains tender, drenched in meaning and masked by a frosty, archaic, sombre skin. One of the better late-Autumn releases we can expect this year.
Ida runs from October 10th – 16th in the Queen’s Film Theatre. Tickets are available here.