There are many reasons to see Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) aside from the impressive list of awards and nominations attached to it, and the lead performance is one of them. It must be difficult to give substance to a character with so little dialogue, but Agata Trzebuchowska conveys the reticence and awkwardness of the main character, a teenage novice nun named Anna, very convincingly, deftly balancing Anna’s bewilderment, over the course of a series of increasingly devastating revelations about her family history, with an almost wilful disengagement. It’s hard to believe this is the radiant 23-year old’s debut role.
The second reason to see Pawlikowski’s film is Lukasz Zal’s and Ryszard Lenczewski’s exquisite cinematography: their uneven, geometrical compositions place the viewer in an uncertain relationship to the people and situations onscreen, revealing a debt to big-name modernist photographers that avoids ever feeling derivative. The story of Anna’s coming of age unfolds, in black and white, across the sere wintertime landscapes of Poland’s northeast, the city of Lodz playing a prominent role. We meet Anna, a war orphan, a week or so before she takes her vows, learning of the existence of her only living relative. Aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a former prosecutor for the People’s Republic of Poland’s security apparatus, is full of surprises. “You’re Jewish,” she tells Anna, born Ida Lebensztajn. Anna/Ida and Wanda embark on a journey to discover the graves of Ida’s parents who died during the Shoah—at the hands of ethnic Poles, it transpires, who’d been sheltering them.
Ida is thoroughly enjoyable as a road movie and unexpected buddy flick: it’s a compelling family drama with a historical flavour. The retro-pop or “Big Beat” soundtrack that places the film so sharply in its early-1960s context, and pays homage to Poland’s long-standing love of jazz, is also a delight. The film’s shortcomings, such as they are, stem mainly from its brevity. Pawlikowski crams two exhausting, even harrowing weeks in the life of a very young woman into a mere 85 minutes. Both characters feel resultingly sketchy at times, though the film is so stunning to look at it’s hard to notice.
The US and UK press went into raptures over the film on its release last autumn, and understandably so. But it’s worth mentioning too that some Polish commentators have taken issue with the character Wanda Gruz and, by extension, Ida‘s own attitude to Poland’s history. There have been a number of films in recent years that have dealt with the complex position of functionaries in the Eastern Bloc’s post-war governments: people contorted by various combinations of political conviction, corruption and, in the case of Jewish people in particular, trauma – but Ida is not one of them. Kulesza’s character is potentially multi-layered and full of contradictions, but we’re given instead a penitent Magdalene and not much else, who disappears from the film the moment Anna’s been led to self-awakening, allowing us little chance to understand Wanda or her moral choices in life. Given the film’s overwhelming theme of the past impacting on the present, and given too the sheer abundance of talent Pawlikowski had on his team, Ida seems at times, for all its beauty, like a missed chance.
Ida was screened as part of Ognisko Polskie’s Kinoclub, an ongoing monthly programme of Polish cinema events at London’s Polish Hearth Club.