The Moving Pictures of ‘Ida’

The following review is based on a talk I gave last week to the wonderful Westchester Cinema Club.

Ida, about a young Polish nun who discovers she is the daughter of Jews killed during World War II, is a hauntingly beautiful film. It is so beautiful that, while watching it, I kept thinking about how movies used to be called “moving pictures”; each of its frames comprises a gorgeous photograph unto itself. I kept forgetting it was only shot last year, and I don’t think that’s just because it is shot in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which frames the image in a square reminiscent of vintage films. I think it’s because it boasts the esthetic purity of more classic films.

It is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, whose previous movies My Summer of Love and The Woman on the Fifth are compelling but nothing on the level of this one. Perhaps that’s because this is a far more personal endeavor: Born in Poland in the late ’50s, he emigrated to London for university. Though closemouthed about other aspects of his background, he has acknowledged there are biographical elements in this film.

He originally conceived it as a thriller about the Communist regime set in 1968, and then decided it had to be sparer both in substance and in style. I’m glad he did. He also pushed it back in 1962, when everyone in Poland still remembered the Nazi regime as if it were yesterday. The influence of Bergman is evident here as is that of Fellini, which makes sense as Palikowski has admitted to watching 8 1/2 every day while making this.

What really distinguishes this film, though, is that it doesn’t suffer from that “pseudo reality” of much modern cinema. No shaky cam, no profusion of angles. Instead, Pawlikowksi shot this with no coverage and no cuts in any given scene. It is wonderfully quiet, with music only added as it appears in a scene. (The use of Mozart’s Symphony N°41 in C Major and Coltrane’s Naima are more effective as a result.) And although his production designers went out of their way to create authentic environments from 1960s Poland, he removed nearly everything from most scenes, leaving at most one or two items in very empty rooms. The result is a film that feels like a dream or a memory—stripped-down and haunting, with every detail looming as a lush symbol that we can choose to unpack or simply ogle.

In scene after scene, characters descend spiral staircases that, in addition to providing lovely imagery, recall the labyrinth that Ida and her hard-nosed aunt Wanda, a fallen Stalinist judge, are navigating, both in terms of their country but also the never-ending process of self-discovery. Also in scene after scene, Ida or Wanda are pictured in the very bottom of frames with a lot of sky or forest above their heads. Often they’re pictured in the corner of those shots as well. It’s an effect that reminds us that, although this film is about these characters, it is also about the ideology, history and politics dwarfing them and their personal stories—the anti-Semitism, the Nazis, the Stalinist regime. Isn’t that how we all feel, especially those of us whose pasts include some of the same sad stories?

The editing enhances the dream-like quality, too. For a purposefully slow-moving film, it contains some very abrupt, very suggestive edits. We don’t see Wanda and Ida’s family’s skeletons being discovered but we see them cradling blankets that cover those bones. We don’t see Wanda’s car accident but we see her car getting pulled out by horses. (I loved that horses are being used to save what used to be called “horseless carriages.” The past is still alive here, arguably more than this film’s present.) In another shocking instance (whose details I won’t spoil), the implied gore occurs neatly off-camera. There is no flesh, no blood in any of these scenes. Instead, it’s all left to our imaginations.

Of course none of this would work if the two lead actresses didn’t keep us transfixed. Agata Kulesza, who plays Wanda, is a much-celebrated Polish actress who is ideal as a hardbitten woman who has to convey so much inner conflict, so much grief and resignation, with very little dialogue. Agata Trzebuchowska is a young hipster feminist who was discovered by Pawlikowski’s colleague in a café. Originally she had no interest in this role—she’d never acted before and has no plans to do so again—but turned out to radiate just the right purity for this character.

Ida has to be a blank slate, someone who has existed outside all the upheaval and larceny that have been going on outside the convent’s walls. She’s our witness, and she is removed from a relationship to anyone but God. And Wanda has to be the opposite, someone who has been in the thick of the communist regime and done some morally questionable things of her own—none of which she seems able to live with, which is why she’s drinking, sleeping around, messing up her career. Their relationship—and how they affect each other—reveals the limitations of both ways of coping.

At the end, neither can shed their history. A final shot of Ida walking silently down a road in her nun’s habit makes sense. She knows she is safe so long as she wears those clothes but not whether she’ll actually takes her vows anymore. As the descendant of Polish Jews who often gets confused for someone of German gentile descent (I am a tall blonde), I certainly can resonate with the specifics of the story. But it is to Pawlikowksi’s credit that you don’t need a personal connection to the material to be powerfully affected by his film. The larger ambiguity he introduces here—that almost hypnagogic quality—feels not only palatable but necessary so that we can all take something away from watching it. By making a story that’s very unreal he has made something that brings us deeper into all of our lives.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy