Sunday, February 8, 2015


Ida is a static road movie.  And yet it is dynamic.  A novice (or "nun-in-training," as a friend referred to her) who was raised in the convent is told by her Mother Superior that she must meet her sole surviving family member, an aunt unknown to her, before the nun can take her final vows.  So, the young nun and her aunt, Wanda, head out on a journey to dig up their past.  In more ways than one.

Ida is also an artful take on the "buddy" movie, in which polar opposites are thrown together on a quest.  Wanda has no faith; she's a "burnt out former [Marxist] believer," as writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski has described her.  She drinks too much and serially beds men.  She asks Ida if she's ever experienced carnal love.  When Ida says she hasn't, Wanda responds, "You should try.  Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are those vows of yours?"

Shortly after this exchange, the two drive through a desolate crossroads (how could one not be reminded of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil?); Wanda smokes as Ida kneels and prays at a lone shrine at one side of the road.

We sense where all of this is going...and yet we don't.  But it seems inevitable that Ida's faith will be tested.

To summarize the film this way makes it sound schematically familiar.  Yet it isn't.  It is, rather, stunningly minimalistic (imagine Hemingway as a filmmaker--but with more soul).

The film has a squeezed 4:3 aspect ratio, like old TVs--perhaps like the ones in Poland in 1961, the year the film is set.  Pawlikowski has said that this choice, as well as the choice of black and white, was "instinctive," and perhaps a desire to "frustrate" the audience.  In any case, it seems to heighten the sense of "sky" created by the director's choice of highly unconventional framing.  (As another friend of mine quipped, "God is in the sky.")  Pawlikowski also felt that the framing contributed to his desire to tell the story elliptically:  "The whole film works by not showing things rather than showing things."  He generally shot only one angle of each scene, with no coverage, ultimately writing and editing in the camera.  "I didn't leave myself any escape," he has said.

The framing came about when Pawlikowski tried tilting up the camera one day--and felt it looked right to give the film more "air."  Room for the spirit, no doubt.  Characters move in or out of the frame, or exist largely at its borders.  In an interview at the London Film Festival, the director expressed his preference for life lived on the borders.

That was a big part of the appeal for Pawlikowski of Poland in the early 60s, when Communism was on the wane and pop and jazz music made a huge impression on him.  I visited Poland in 1968 with my parents and watched a Beatles cover band (replete with black turtlenecks and Beatle haircuts) in a sad nightclub, and I have to say that the director captured that moment in time so well--and, with the help of his production design team, imbued it with the beautiful clash that he as  a teen experienced.  (Note the cool, deco-Cavern set.)

Pawlikowski perhaps has indeed succeeded in frustrating some viewers who have openly asked him after screenings why the nun makes the choice she does at the end of the film.  Is it a failure of these viewers' imaginations or is it the result of Pawlikowski's refusal to spoon feed and "show everything...and give you all the information you need"?  I imagine that the director might shrug and invoke, as he has in a couple of interviews, Jean Renoir:  "Everyone has their reasons."

One cannot talk about this film without mentioning its extraordinary DP, Lukasz Zal, at the time of filming a 29-year-old who had only previously worked as a camera operator and who took over when the original cinematographer became ill in the first few days of filming.  Zal's work resulted in Ida's being nominated by the Academy for Best Cinematography.

Also contributing to the writing of the film was actor/playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz.  Wanda is played by seasoned Polish actor Agata Kulesza, Ida by Agata Trzebuchowska--a non-actor discovered in a café.

Ida the film is nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.  It should win.  Had I seen this film before I had made my top ten of the year list, it would have been number one.  It left me slack-jawed with awe.

Here's the trailer for Ida: 

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