Polish born, Paris/London based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s (My Summer of Love, Last Resort) new film Ida is the first of his to be shot and set in his native Poland. This seems a crucial decision, for Ida is a film about looking into the past, be it the characters, director or an entire nation. Set in 1962 and filmed in monochromatic, “Academy” ratio (traditionally used for silent movies) we find Poland on the precipice: the haunting ghosts of World War II still linger over the perpetually foggy countryside, a place that no doubt looks the same as it did in the middle ages, with the modernism of Jazz music and technological advances heralded by the Soviets just around the corner.
We join Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young, sheltered, novitiate nun in her convent, who is ordered by her mother superior to visit her one surviving relative before she takes her vows. Said relative is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who is Anna’s complete opposite; a steely willed, loose talking, heavy drinking former judge of Stalin’s regime, who coolly delivers the news that they are in fact a Jewish family, the rest of which perished during the war and that Anna’s real name is Ida Bernstein. Consequently, Anna/Ida wishes to find out what happened to her family while attempting to retain her Catholic upbringing and while Wanda offers to help, questions “What if you go and find there is no God?”
The film’s narrative is driven by the past, discovering what happened to these people, both real and imagined, in post war Poland as they go hurtling into the future. What’s fairly astonishing about Ida is how it manages to do with this without any particular rhetoric and avoids nostalgia or sentimentalism. Here, the war has thrown these varying peoples and the previous order they knew, be they Jewish or Catholic, into the air and those who have been left behind are scrambling around for answers as they move into a brave new world. This is perhaps the modernist bent a film set 50 years prior provides, but it is refreshing nonetheless to find a film with so much socio-political dressings be entirely human and relatable.
None of Ida would really be so affecting if it wasn’t for the chemistry of it’s terrific cast. Both Trzebuchowska (her debut) and Kulesza are excellent as the central leads. The former brings all the initial restraint and naivety of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, who slowly realises the currency of her religious sisterhood and her beauty coaxed by her world-weary aunt into burgeoning modernity. Wanda’s own deeply traumatised scars begin to show, over time, her maternal opposition with Ida driving much of the narrative. Meanwhile the hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) sparkles while on screen with Ida; their youthful exuberance daring to break the form of the film, introducing her to Jazz which both contextualises and affects due to the film’s mostly diegetic soundtrack. Between him and Wanda, they show Ida an alternative to her current being, often just through a series of exchanged glances.
While the film has many dark notes, highlighted by it’s use of shade and focus, in what seems like every single beautifully composed frame the cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski throw at us, there is a lot of light in Ida‘s script too. Co-written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, it allows for much humour and cynicism in a film about holocaust survivors. While there are plenty of emotional moments, especially in the uncovering of barely dug graves, Ida still manages to keep a playful tone where necessary, especially through Kulesza’s firey “Red” Wanda. Therefore, it really is not surprising to learn that Ida has already won the highest accolades at both the Toronto and London Film Festivals. A film this perfectly balanced does not come around very often.