Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is one of the most quietly powerful films of the year. It is a detective story, road movie, and a coming-of-age narrative wrapped concisely into 82 minutes. Set in 1961 Poland during the Stalinist dictatorship, Ida centers on Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young orphaned woman who was sheltered in a convent since she was an infant. Before taking her vows, Anna finds out that she has a previously unknown aunt. The Mother Superior insists that Anna visit her aunt before cementing her future to the convent. While Anna obeys her, she also has her own motives to visit the only family member left in her life.
Anna’s aunt is Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) a former state prosecutor who played her part in the political show trials of the 1950s when the Communist government solidified their power using judicial means to dispose of their enemies. After arriving at Wanda’s flat, we discover that Wanda embodies modernity with her formal attire, austere apartment, and smoking habit. Wanda doesn’t hesitate to callously inform Anna that her birth name is Ida Lebenstein and that she is Jewish. If that wasn’t a big enough shock, we also learn that a Christian family once housed and protected Ida’s mother until one day the family betrayed her. Ida’s mother was one of the three million Jews who lost their lives between 1935 and 1945 in Poland. Wanda and Ida decide to visit the village of Wanda’s childhood in order to unearth the circumstances of the betrayal and death of Ida’s parents.
The film becomes a delightful but introspective road and detective film centering on these two personalities separated by their innocence and experience, naiveté and cynicism, tradition and modernity, Catholicism and Communism. In between their interrogation of peasants, priests, and officials, the film’s true gem rests in the relationship of this odd couple. Consider a scene that could easily have come from Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También. Wanda questions Ida if she has had any “sinful thoughts” about “carnal love.” Ida, the nun-to-be, replies no to which Wanda says, “That’s a shame. You should try… otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours.” While Wanda consistently teases Ida about her conservative lifestyle, it is a handsome musician who ultimately challenges and tempts Ida’s traditional mode of thinking.
Along the way on the road, Wanda picks up a hitchhiker named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a handsome traveling saxophonist. While Ida is no doubt smitten by his good looks, we also get a sense that modernity is taking hold of her. It is not so much that she is attracted to the jazz music, the laissez-faire attitude, the nightclubs and city nightlife. Instead, they serve as a reminder that her life has been predicated on a lie. Having lost her ethnic and homeland consciousness, where her religion and history is put into question, modernism becomes mighty tempting for Ida. Meanwhile, Wanda drowns herself in this lifestyle but never quenching her desires because she yearns for the past.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Poland but migrated to London at the age of 14 in order to escape the Communist government. Pawlikowski is what Hamid Naficy would term an “exilic filmmaker.” According to Naficy, a scholar of diaspora, exile, and postcolonial cinemas, he argues that people in diaspora “maintain a long-term sense of ethnic consciousness and distinctiveness, which is consolidated by the periodic hostility of either the original home or the host societies toward them.” It is only appropriate to read Ida through this lens. While Ida and Wanda are not exiles from their native homeland, they are emotionally, culturally, and politically exiled. The former is practicing a religion that is not part of her heritage. The latter serves a communist government that is guilty of exiling many of its own people. One gets a sense that Ida is Pawlikowski’s attempt to reconnect and negotiate with a homeland that is no longer his. It is undeniably personal and poignant.
Ida is another in the wave of excellent films that is coming from eastern European auteurs. Like most of these films, the historical politics simmer in the background but never overpower the story. The longing and lamenting reminded me much of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. While The Turin Horse is more quotidian and hyperrealistic, Ida is a lyrical and minimalist film that experiments narratively and visually. Instead of realism, the film’s poeticism and lyricism is closer to films like Persona and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Credit needs to be given to Trzebuchowska. Despite it being her first feature film, Trzebuchowska’s use of subtle facial expressions and understated performance is comparable to Maria Falconetti, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann.
In the scenes between Ida and Lis, there is a hint of French New Wave as Ida toys with rebellion. And in a haunting scene with Wanda, shot in one continuous take, there is a touch of Michael Haneke’s underlying dread. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, Ida packs a lot of visual information into its antiquated aspect ratio of 4:3. Despite all these influences, there is no mistaking Pawlikowski’s voice and fingerprint in the film. Ida is simply one of the best films of the year.