In Pawel Pawlikowski’s stunningly austere latest, Anna, a novitiate nun, finds out that she is actually Ida, a Jewish girl whose family were executed during World War II. The gruesome and tragic details unfold as her aunt Wanda, her only remaining relative, takes her on a road trip to visit the house where she was born and to find her parents’ un-restful final resting place. The legacy of anti-Semitism, facism, and then Socialism are swiftly outlined through interactions personal, romantic, and political. It is clear that the recent past has left a legacy of suspicion, silence and hostility. The writers Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz show sensitivity toward the human cost of this legacy—regardless of religion or ethnic background, everyone has secrets and has been oppressed by different truths.
What was particularly moving and a nice surprise is the relationship between Ida and Wanda. The story is set up with a poignant contrast—Ida as Anna the nun has lead a bucolic and chaste life at the convent, surrounded by women. By contrast the city-dwelling Wanda spends her days in the company of men, whether her judicial colleagues, policemen, or lovers; she is a thoroughly modern woman down to her love of jazz, her cigarettes, and her career (this is the 1960s after all). On their road trip, they are indeed an odd couple—Ida, almost ghostly in her appearance and quiet demeanor, and Wanda, who is vibrant, present, and committed to hedonism and directness. In their contrast a certain tension of 1960’s Poland is delineated: on one hand, the solid, old-school Church and on the other a difficult path from war to some form of modern political state with an uncertain future. Clearly the women have their moral differences, but their quarrel is not with each other. Within a larger political story, there is a more personal, intimate but no less political one about women and their changing roles and appearances in a society in transition. Ultimately, the real, present world does not suit either of them, and they actively reject it in shocking but perhaps inevitable ways. Wanda rejects it because the certainty of her family’s past (as well as her own) is too painful to bear; Ida rejects it because the uncertainty of her (and her country’s) future is too much for her fragile mind to contemplate (though she certainly enjoys having a brief taste of it, knowing she can go home again). Having just realized her past, she can barely contemplate a future.
Ida is beautifully filmed in black and white, with both stark and beautifully muted tones such as one might find from a film from the 1960s. There are a few moments of sharpness—a perfectly cut little black dress, a dark statue of Jesus against the snow, a grave in the woods, and an alto sax in a smoky room (there’s a wonderful use of Coltrane here). Some of the shots are framed such that you only see a part of a face, a body, a room, a grave—you never see the whole thing all at once. And thus the cinematography echoes the reality of truth finding. Things are sometimes black and white but there are limitless shades of grey. Likewise we see the whole bit by bit and maybe, if we’re lucky, we get to see the whole picture.
Ida, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, 80 min. Canal+Polska, et al., 2013. In Polish.