Spare, sparsely plotted, absorbing, and unapologetically austere, Ida is a wrenching voyage into Polish history; a stunning character portrait of survival and loss; and a film of exceptional artistry whose emotions are as ardently persuasive as its images are indelibly beautiful.
Ida presents a hushed, elemental story of a young Polish woman’s discovery of herself in the early 1960s. Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), a pious novice nun, is told that before her vows can be taken, she is to visit her family. Upon visiting her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a judge and former prosecutor under the Communist regime, Wanda reveals that Anna’s real name is Ida Lebenstein, and that her Jewish parents were murdered during the war. Ida decides to find their final resting place.
Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) is a solemn filmmaker, devoutly restrained and unshakably purposeful. At barely 90 minutes, the movie feels full, yet free of excess. It’s quiet, original, uncompromising, and breathtakingly accomplished on every level. Its story of faith and despair is gracefully told, capturing a spiritual tranquility with a purity of form that is rare outside of a Dreyer film, its uncluttered spaces harkening back to Bresson.
The screenplay is a model of economy, as precise as the lensing by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, who position subjects at the bottom of the frame, emphasizing personal insignificance within the totalitarian machine. Frame by frame, Ida looks resplendently bleak, superbly photographed in luminous monochrome, combined with the gloomy Polish weather and stalinist-era deprivations. Shimmering with detail, the black-and-white cinematography has a luminous clarity, imbued with melancholic beauty. It’s a sort of neo-wave movie with something of the classic Polish film school and a bit of Truffaut, but also deadpan flecks of Béla Tarr and Aki Kaurismäki.
Ida gets to the heart of its matter with startling swiftness, and reaches spiritual depth through affecting performances rendered in sublimely stark compositions. A compact and moving odyssey that explores the death of an old era in Europe and the beginning of a new one, Ida resists any temptation to become an ideological tract. What comes across is a vast woefulness for what the war did to Poland and all its people.
Ida’s vision is deceptively wide-reaching despite a scale that’s deliberately small and pared-down. It’s an elegant miniature that illuminates grander, sadder themes; a gorgeous and humble tale of stiff upper lips and scars that refuse to heal. It’s a stern lesson: a grimly potent portrait of repression, of what happens to a society that buries its past in an unmarked grave – and lives its present in a state of corrosive denial. The attendant price that we pay to learn the truth is a high one, and the greatest of atrocities can have the most intimate of outcomes.