When we meet Anna, she’s in the final steps of becoming a nun and living alongside her sisters in a nunnery. She lives in a world of silence, prayer, servitude and religious meditation. There are final steps she must take, like saying crucial vows and making the ultimate choice to embrace the ways of the sisterhood. Yet, before Anna can fully immerse herself, she spends time with her aunt, whom she’s not especially close with. Anna’s aunt Wanda is a piece of work: she’s a judge, an alcoholic who sleeps around and, in every way, the polar opposite of Anna. Yet, the two form a unique bond, as Anna learns some family secrets that change how she views herself and her family history. Turns out, her name isn’t Anna but Ida and she’s Jewish. This is only the first in a series of revelations, leading to the discovery of further, shocking surprises and the whereabouts of her parents.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is his first since “My Summer of Love,” the forbidden romance drama from 2004 that resulted in the breakout performance of Emily Blunt. His latest couldn’t be more different. Whereas “My Summer of Love” has a sunny, idealized look at a tender/tragic coming out, “Ida” is bathed in black and white photography that not only conveys the sense of a time long past but gives us the feeling of being wrapped in a memory.
Before I continue, let me be frank. “Ida” is a Polish film in English subtitles and shot in black and white. Don’t let this keep you from seeing this terrific movie. Everything about the film sneaks up on you: the endearing quality of the characters, the nature of Ida and Wanda’s contrasting lives, the time in which its set (the music and outfits tell us we’re in the 1960’s) and the size of the secret that awaits Ida’s curiosity.
The quiet soundtrack conveys a time before we were saturated with media and noise. While the pace is what I’d kindly call leisurely (instead of slow), and the subject and presentation typify what one refers to as “art movie fare,” this isn’t a pretentious challenge to sit through. Instead, Pawlikowski creates a mood of grim contemplation, in which two characters we care about explore a landscape of uncertain, potentially dreadful possibilities. The deceptively understated filmmaking sets us up for the unpredictable twists the narrative has in store for the audience.
This is a most unusual road movie, with the give and take between the reserved woman of faith and her colorful aunt constantly engaging and forceful. “Ida” is grim but compassionate, carefully unveiling the motivations and hidden desires of its two protagonists. Pawlikowski utilizes rich black and white cinematography, in the same way “The White Ribbon” creates visions of stark beauty in the midst of a scary landscape.
The framing is another touch that suggests an old fashioned film, reflecting how films of the time were frequently cropped. This isn’t a distraction but another clever touch that puts us into this contemplative, mysterious world. Playing Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska makes one of the year’s great acting debuts. Her piercing eyes and present, naturalistic acting make her one to watch. It’s difficult to imagine the film working as well without her in the title role. Playing Wanda, Agata Kulesza makes her admirable, vulnerable and utterly sympathetic.
“Ida” is certainly unusual but it has the grip of a great thriller and a tender heart beneath its chilly surface. The film’s brilliance is how deceptively simple and out in the open everything seems at first, until the story shakes you with another whopper of an unveiled piece of the puzzle.
Ida plays at the Maui Film Festival First Light on Friday, January 2nd at 2pm. For tickets and info, go to www.mauifilmfestival.com or call 808.579.9244.