Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Major Players: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska
Out Of Five: Four
Pawel Pawlikowski isn’t one to rush into making a film. Until last year, he’d been absent from the big screen since 2004. His latest, Ida, actually made its first appearance in this country almost exactly a year ago, at the 2013 London Film Festival. Although we’ve had to wait until now for it to get a release in this country, it’s a much more satisfying experience than the frustratingly enigmatic The Woman In The Fifth (2012).
Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun preparing to take her final vows in a convent in 1960s Poland. The Mother Superior insists she visits her only remaining relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who refused to look after her when she was a toddler. Ida’s visit turns into an exploration of her past, as she discovers she’s Jewish by birth and that her parents and brother were murdered after the War. It’s a journey that has a profound effect, taking her to the brink of renouncing her vocation.
The cinematography is stunning. Filmed in the starkest, coldest black and white, it’s razor sharp and the perfect palette for grim, freezing Communist Poland. People – usually just two or three – are tiny figures in sweeping landscapes. They’re often the main characters in the film, but as individuals they’re not that important. What’s happening to them is more important – and what took place in the past. Less successful is the technique of positioning the actors at the foot of the screen, so they are dominated by their backdrop. While it’s probably intended to have a similar effect to the landscapes, it doesn’t work as well, with facial expressions slipping off the edge.
Pared down to the barest of bones, Ida is minimalist in the extreme. The first ten minutes have no music and no dialogue, just the sounds of the convent – eating, feeding animals, sweeping the floor. The film as a whole is infused with a remarkable stillness that surrounds Ida herself in particular. As a modest nun, her eyes are frequently directed towards the floor, but when she looks up, we see they are dark and full of intensity, betraying a passionate interior. There’s a real flash of it when her drunken aunt attempts to take her bible from her and she reclaims it forcefully.
Her aunt Wanda is a complete contrast, but they have more in common than they think. At first sight, she could be an escort: slightly drunk, wearing a dressing gown and with a male visitor leaving her apartment. It turns out she’s a judge, but her life is propped up by cigarettes, booze and casual sex and it transpires that her drink problem is bigger than it first appeared as she’s clearly trying to shut out the past through its haze. As she eventually finds out the truth about her sister and her family, she becomes less glamorous. Until that point, she had stood out against her grey surroundings because of her make-up and expensive clothes. Now she’s increasingly untidy and attached to the bottle and cigarettes. In the end, her final act is remarkably matter-of-fact and has all the simplicity you would associate with her niece.
Both actresses give wonderfully restrained performances: they’re all about what’s going on under the surface than what they’re saying or expressing in other ways. What we really need to know lies beneath their words and gestures and we hear every single word that isn’t said. Loud and clear.
This is very much a return to form for Pawlikowski. Alongside its extraordinary magnetic stillness, Ida is measured in pace and tone and its a combination that makes for a fascinating film, which is both absorbing and deeply moving.
Ida is goes on limited release around the UK on Friday, 26 September.