There has been a wide resurgence of monochrome cinema recently, with Frances Ha, Nebraska and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado all coming out of Hollywood just last year. With the exception of movies like The Artist though – where the absence of colour has an obligatory role in its homage to silent film – black and white often comes off as a pretty vapid stylistic device.
Ida though is a film that feels like it could only ever exist in shades of grey. It’s a film where high-contrast black-and-white defines characters and moments, rendering them promiscuous or chaste; sinful or pure. Coupling light with Christian purity may seem heavy-handed, even juvenile, but it doesn’t come across that way in Ida. Rather, director Paweł Pawlikowski creates a deeply nuanced aesthetic where two ostensibly opposite characters – a novice nun and her newly-discovered Aunt – share a road trip that delves deep into a dark family history.
Both in style and substance, Ida is a truly beautiful film. Instead of layering on exposition, Pawlikowski lets the viewer gradually realize the roles each character will play in the narrative. We are, however, made aware of the central premise of the film very early on, when Anna, an orphan, discovers that her name is in fact Ida Lebenstein and that her parents were Jews killed among thousands of others in the Polish countryside. The revelations about Ida are shattering, but the film succeeds most in presenting the different ways in which we handle the truth.
As the film progresses we learn of Ida’s deceased family through her deeply scarred Aunt, Wanda, a former state prosecutor, played by the superb Agata Kulesza, whose deals with death have left her apathetic and alcoholic. Ida by comparison is played by debutant Agata Trzebuchowska, who gives the titular protagonist an enthralling poise and innocence that works well alongside her promiscuous aunt. This pairing is key, as neither character is overplayed yet they both still capture a really engrossing sense of familial tension that amounts in dramatic internal conflicts: Ida grapples with sin – lust and wrath most of all – while the boozy Wanda struggles to find any sense of meaning in her life.
These struggles take a few different forms throughout the film. On their lengthy road trip, Ida and Wanda take on a hitchhiking jazz saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik), who immediately charms the conflicted Ida. These feelings are compounded by the constant sounds of John Coltrane throughout, which also helps remind us that these characters are situated in the 1960s. Interestingly, Coltrane was someone who famously struggled with religious beliefs, jumping between Christianity, Islam and Hinduism throughout his career – an apt allegory. Early on, we also learn that Wanda was once a famous state prosecutor who worked within the Communist Party and sentenced many men to death. She describes her career ruefully, “Red Wanda. That’s me”.
Most of the action in the film takes place in the very bottom corners of the almost-always fixed, Academy-ratio frame, with Ida often shot awkwardly from the nose up. These unconventional shots are extended long enough to effectively capture her doe-eyed tranquility, but cut with ample precision to keep the film moving at a relatively constant pace, leaving it just 80 minutes long. I rarely walk out of a film wishing it were longer, but Ida could have extended itself slightly, if for no other reason then to allow us more time with the impressive cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski.
The film’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski, though Polish-born, has worked mostly in the UK thus far in his career, making a series of moderately successful English-language films, including a number of documentaries. None of Pawlikowski’s films though have come close to tapping into ideas of self-discovery and cultural tension the way Ida does. Ida encapsulates the pressures of Poland under the Communist bloc, while recalling the deep-seated wounds left by World War Two – 90% of Poland’s Jewish population were killed. It’s a haunting recollection that creates some incredibly poignant scenes, but it doesn’t force ideas down your throat so much as it simply places the camera and observes. Ida feels observational because it is a compact film free of any sense of excess or extravagance. Instead it reflects on years of widespread cultural and spiritual anxiety with beautiful monochromes and inspired characters crafted by deep but carefully restrained performances.
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