Streaming Movie Review: Ida

Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) in IDA. Courtesy of Music box Films

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

As Poland’s official submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film (currently considered the frontrunner), Ida should be required viewing for all budding filmmakers. Rather than relying on any preceding work that had been driven by the written word, director Pawel Pawlikowski and his two Directors of Photography, Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski, have constructed a masterpiece that nods to the sheer poetry of the visual. The artistry of Ida nods to such auteurs as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and, traveling back five centuries, to the 16th century Dutch renaissance painter Johannes Vermeer. With certain scenes depicting a high exterior light pouring diagonally down into a room, its singular focus illuminating a young female’s expressive face, Vermeer might as well have been literally calling the shots.

What we see is akin to a musical movement in diffused grays, blacks and whites that plays into a host of issues: the political landscape of 1960s Poland, survivor guilt, the desertion of family, and examinations into the very essence of love, be it spiritual, familial, carnal or romantic. Yet Ida nimbly skirts any kind of preachiness; rather, we are passive, journeying observers, taken along on a highly unusual road trip in which discovery leads to ultimate choice for two disparate women.

In a small convent in Poland, 1962, we meet the 18-year-old novitiate Ida, initially introduced to us as Anna (newcomer and non-actor Agata Trzebuchowska), who is about to take her vows amid the nuns who raised her since her infancy. But the Mother Superior insists that before Anna makes her final commitment, she must reach out to her only relative, an aunt who she has never met. Decidedly uncomfortable in having to step outside the familiarity of the convent, and making certain that her wimple – acting as a kind of shield — is firmly in place, Anna makes her way through a dirty, bustling city to the door of Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Far from a tender family reunion, her aunt greets her with a cigarette dangling from her snarling lips, a “gentleman caller” visible from the bedroom, her messy robe looking like it had just been thrown on. (The celebrated Italian actress Anna Magnani, the ’50s cinematic muse for Tennessee Williams, comes to mind.) But Wanda is no prostitute; rather, she’s a local magistrate. Previously a Communist state prosecutor who was known for merciless acts of so-called justice, she ironically boasts to her niece that  “They called me Red Wanda.”

Upon learning that her ancestry isn’t exactly what she’d expected, Anna – born Ida Lebenstein – and Aunt Wanda embark on a road trip to locate the family’s graves … or, at the very least, to glean information about how they died.

Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) in IDA. Courtesy of Music Box Films

To say this film is spare comes close to an overstatement. Pawlikowski and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz deliver the story between the gaps: the unhurried close-ups on the characters’ faces, their quiet utterances, their small but telling movements. A hesitant courtship between Ida and a sexy jazz saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) is a wonder to watch, a dance of sidelong glances that is far more evocative than words.

Especially for Ida, a young novitiate who is unused to excess chatter, her few words are highly effective. When the two women’s behaviors reverse, with the young nun reaching out to comfort her foundering, worldly aunt, we intuit a sea change — and find ourselves reassessing which one of the pair possesses the stronger backbone.

Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) in IDA. Courtesy of Music Box Films

Portraying the sweet, kind girl who knows nothing of life but prayers and devotion, Ms. Trzebuchowska is a wonder, seemingly infused with a Joan of Arc-like sense of spirituality and inner fortitude. But she’s not a pill; her easy smile, revealing a trio of dimples, wins us over. As the hard-bitten aunt, veteran actress Agata Kulesza knows how to command the screen with a single look, her dark eyes acting as pools into her  deeply despairing soul … all the while juggling a fluid sexuality with an ever-present wit. Together, the two actors are quite the Odd Couple of the Polish cinema.

Ida is shot in black and white in the boxy 1.37:1 “Academy ratio” (the go-to method employed between 1932–1952, eventually replaced by widescreen technology), evoking the art of still photography as much as the cinematic. Having taken approximately 3,000 photographs in preparation, cinematographer Lenczewski states: “These became the basis for the film’s storyboard, for the divisions of the scenes. In every movie, the script plays a large part in dictating the pace and structure of the movie. In this case, the photographs were just as important as building blocks.”

In the third act, when three characters brave the wintry landscape en route to unearthing a terrible truth, they appear at a great distance, barely discernible in the frame that’s set in an extreme long shot. The wordless vision suggests that the characters possess no voice nor any control of past, buried events; rather, that they must find a way to survive in the hostile environment that now envelops them, overwhelms them, marginalizes them.

If one picture is worth 1,000 words … wait till you see this one.

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Rating on a scale of 5 habits that are hard to break: 4.5

Release Date: May 2, 2014; VOD: November 2014
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenplay by: Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 82 minutes

Here is the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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