If you fancy a spare, grim slab of stark monochrome minimalism to cut through the impending Christmas cheer, look no further than Ida, the new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikoswki.
Actually, I’m not sure if it’s still playing everywhere as I’ve only just caught up with it at our local arts centre, but in any event, Ida is the superbly acted and directed story of the eponymous Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate in 1960s Poland. Having been brought up by nuns, Ida is informed by the Mother Superior that she must visit her only living relative, her aunt Anna (Agata Kulesza), before taking her vows. Anna then reveals that Ida is in fact Jewish, and was secretly taken in by the nuns as a baby during World War II.
What follows is something of an odd couple journey for aunt and niece to discover the truth about Ida’s family, and to locate where her parents lie buried. Locals are questioned, and in turn casual anti-Semitism manifests itself – the same anti-Semitism that no doubt caused some Poles to betray their Jewish neighbours to the Nazis. Amid this quest Ida slowly, subtly begins to question her desire to become a nun, though she can barely even admit as much to herself. At the same time, Anna has her own private and deeply tragic reason for wanting answers about Ida’s past.
This is a quiet, thoughtful and staggeringly beautiful film. The film is shot in unfussy black and white 1:33 Academy aspect ratio, and as such Pawlikowski makes tremendous use of height as well as width. He also frames several close-ups with the heads in the lower part of the frame, creating a profound sense of isolation and loneliness. Such deliberately paced, understated miserablism will not appeal to all but I really, really liked this film, which, at a mere 80 minutes, certainly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.
On a wider scale, behind the tragedy of Ida’s family looms the greater tragedy of a nation decimated by one dictatorship (the Nazis), only to end up in the grip of another (Soviet Communism), before finally emerging in more recent years to an increasingly uncertain future. Ultimately however, what lingers in the consciousness even more than the bigger political picture, or even the magnificent cinematography, are the performances – particularly from Agata Trzebuchowska. As Ida she is subtle but completely brilliant, conveying every emotion with phenomenal nuance and realism. It is her haunting face you will remember long after the end credits roll.