The pictorial beauty of Ida

FILM, In Cinemas
img_ida1On the aesthetic asceticism of Pawel Pawlikowski’s formally brilliant film.

How much do we really know of who we are? Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a journey of self-discovery, and of identities lost and found, in startling cinematography.

Ida, much like its titular character (played by Agata Trzebuchowska), is timid and un-extravagant, but underneath the porcelain surface lies the maelstrom of a dark past. Anna is a Catholic nun in post-war Poland, about to complete her novitiate at the church on whose doorsteps she was found as an infant. Before she is allowed to take her vows, however, she must visit her last known living kin: an aunt she has never met. Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a magistrate, a faded star of the Communist regime and a conflicted, disentranced character with an easy hand for the bottle and a carefree embrace of hedonism. She reveals that Anna was born Ida Libenstein, daughter to a Jewish couple, but their initial meeting is an awkward collision of discordant worldviews.

The niece’s unexpected visit, however, had unearthed a long-buried longing for the truth about the family she had lost whilst growing up during the Nazi occupation of Poland, leading both to embark on a trip to reclaim this lost chapter in their lives. The mismatched duo finds a community still reeling from a war that ravaged life and humanity, and evasive of the grim reality of their anti-Semitic past. A parable to the tragic snatched history of Polish Jews, who are purported to have once outnumbered any other in the world, the family now living in the old Lebenstein homestead denies ever knowing them. For better or worse, they continue their pursuit for truth, only to discover a terrible secret about the disappearance of Anna’s parents.

Although gravid with the weight of its historical setting, Ida is much more than just a Holocaust film; Pawlikowski meditates on the theme of youth finding its own meaning and sense of self, of identities lost and found. Anna, whose Catholic upbringing is brought into tumult after encountering a starkly different truth in her origins, begins to show signs of doubt. Along the way, they encounter wayfaring musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), whose mutual attraction to Anna leads her to question her renunciation of a garish, sensuous other-world she had never even tried to know, and the life of chaste devotion that awaits.

The undercurrent of Pawlikowski’s film is an elliptical solipsism—how much do we really know of ourselves, and is our identity hinged more on the past, how we live in the present, or what we choose for the future? Whereas Anna is poised forward with having to decide who she wants to be, Wanda is forced to come to terms with difficult choices she made in the past, which pull her backwards into a spiral of bitter despair. Trzebuchowska is elusive and ascetic as the young nun, whose face is downturned in resigned obedience to each new revelation, betraying little more than curiousity until her own inner turmoil comes to surface in the second-half of the film. Kulesza, on the other hand, is egregious and angry as Wanda, and struts on-screen with a veneer of confidence that begins to crack from the very moment of Anna’s appearance, giving incremental glimpses into the elder Lebenstein’s deeply wounded soul. Her departure on film is unceremonious and abrupt: smoke rises from a freshly-stubbed cigarette to prolong the discomfort.

Whilst fantastically acted and directed, the most gratifying quality of Ida may well be its cinematography. Filmed in black and white in claustrophobic 1.37:1, it defiantly rises above the glut of contemporary cinema with revitalist aesthetics and vigour. Invoking techniques of the still medium, each scene is finely composed with a photographer’s eye for precision and angles and would not look out of place in an exhibition. In one scene, after a quiet escape from the motel room they were staying at to visit Lis at a night club, Anna returns to find Wanda asleep. The camera switches to Wanda lying on her side, facing the lens, out of focus, in the fore; as Anna lies into her own bed in the background, her head falls into the slim alcove of Wanda’s neck, watchful, in a beautifully composed image of pensive self-doubt: Anna staring from across a void of concealed anxiety and naïveté, wondering about the different life Wanda leads and has challenged her to live.

In another, Wanda tends to her booze at a table following a day of failed interrogation of the locals regarding the fate of her sister; in a corner of the screen, the bartender is simply a disembodied pair of hands arranging glasses on a high counter, impersonal and almost absent, appearing full figure only to quickly pass off-camera for another customer. The scene seemed to accentuate the sense of alienation the last of the Lebensteins felt on return to what was in fact their own hometown in the very recent past; that they appear alone even in the presence of others.

The preference for portraiture of cropped shoulders relegated to narrow margins of the screen throughout the film is jarring in effect, yet visually affective, in particular the scene of Anna’s reaction as a fellow novice takes her vows whilst she herself abstains in the audience. Light and pattern are utilised with an assured deliberateness to compose admirable pictorials of exquisite beauty; lonesome cottages dotting bleak, snowy landscapes and the heavenly overhead illumination of the church contrast with the hectic art deco geometry of 1960s urban night life.

A poignant story told sensitively and without much fuss, Ida is perhaps a victim of its own brilliance, concluding with a veritable ending but awash with an overall sense of the underwhelming. It attempts to convey much in its short run-time and relies too much on the audience’s own interpretation of empty spaces and its visual rigour, which occurs only at the expense of their more intimate acquaintance with the film’s characters. Full of candour but lacking in emotional hue, Ida may be short of full flavor; it nevertheless remains a remarkable foray that is aesthetic—and almost perfect—in its asceticism.

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski,
Poland/Denmark/France/UK, 2013; 82 minutes
Featuring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik.