The stark, beautiful cinematography is the first thing that grabbed me, and most audience members, during the 2014 Florida Film Festival screening of the new Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) film Ida. However it doesn’t take long to see there is something much more complex going on here than just another foreign art film of technical merit. Every single shot in this film is a work of art, an amazing piece of black and white still photography that just happens to have movement within its frames. The choice to shoot in a square 4:3 aspect ratio almost always feels like a gimmick to me in modern cinema. In this case it is inspired. The use of vertical space is like nothing I can recall seeing.
Set in Poland in 1962, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun weeks away from taking her vows. Raised in a Catholic orphanage she has no idea about her past. She comes to discover that she has one living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna knows that before she can commit herself forever to the only life she has known she must learn where she came from. Wanda is very much a woman of the world. She smokes and drinks far too much, certainly has no problem with sex, and is a member of the Communist Party. Wanda has long lost any glimmer of faith in humanity or spirituality. Their worlds could not be further apart. This is the set up for what the film ultimately becomes: a very well-made, dramatic roadtrip film. The character arcs of these women are both profound and heartbreaking.
As Pawlikowski has touched on with some of his characters in previous films, Anna is naïve and sheltered but not foolish. Even though Anna does not always understand Wanda’s motives or always feel comfortable with her actions she still allows these experiences to form a true, not cynical, view her aunt. As the dark history their family experienced during the Holocaust begins to become clear Anna begins to understand who she is and what she can become, for better or worse. She starts to realize that all experiences can be worthwhile. Even some of the most sinful.
The film flows in a way that seems contradictory. On the one hand it is very patient. Not necessarily slow, but it takes its time. Although still manages to accomplish that in 80 minutes. Thanks to deliberate editing and strong performances the film comes together in a way that even some of the most academically important filmmakers tend not to pull off. The White Ribbon comes to mind. While I love that film and Michael Haneke’s work in general, sometimes he has never been one to trim for the sake of kindness to his audience. Ida does not suffer from this. It gives the audience members exactly enough to feel the emotions they are supposed to feel without encouraging them to glance at their watches.
Ida has been making the film festival rounds since last September. It has won top prizes at the London Film Festival, Polish Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, amongst many others. Orlando was lucky enough to grab it for the Florida Film Festival back in April, but it is a real treat that Enzian is taking a chance on such a quiet and important film by programming it this month. This is a very challenging film, but so worthy of your time. Ida might not end up being the best film you will see at Enzian this year, but it will certainly be one of the hardest to shake.