Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, and Dawid Ogrodnik.
Throughout Ida the camera hardly ever moves. I don’t mean that the takes are unusually long; I mean that for each take, director Pawel Pawlikowski frames the shot, keeps the camera stationary, and then lets the actors act out the scene, as they move towards and away from the lens and from one side of the frame to the other. That choice is remarkably effective at creating the impression of a window into the life of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) a young novice about to take her vows as a nun, only to discover dark family secrets which challenge her conceptions.
Before Anna takes her vows, her mother superior wishes her to visit her only living family member, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna has never met her aunt, who refused to raise her because she is a prominent judge and proud supporter of the Communist party in Poland, and she assumes the Catholic sisters brainwashed Anna to hate her. However, the nuns did so such thing, and Anna is completely ignorant of her past, her identity, and her family’s dark history.
Ida is much more than story merely about discovering one’s roots, or bonding with an estranged family member. While both of those things happen to Anna, as well as learning her real name: Ida, the film is just as much a story of doubt, resolution, uncertainty, and lifelike scenarios that are painful, comforting, and confusing. The juxtaposition of such scenarios is not unlike the moral conflicts in Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, and Ida’s searching for her past, as well as the blocking of two crucial scenes, certainly reminded me of The Double Life of Veronique. I love that in a story about personal roots and reconciling two different lives Pawlikowski references some of the greatest Polish cinema.
However, Ida struggles to reconcile her past with her present life, and Pawlikowski introduces his own techniques as well. Many of the subjects are positioned in the lower corners of the screen, drawing attention to the open space above, suggesting that there is something more than the individuals in the scenes. That blocking is prominent during the early scenes set in the abbey when Ida has no clue regarding her past or why she came to the convent. As Ida learns more about her past, the subjects take up more and more of the screen; however, long distance shots, corner blocking, and extreme angles occur throughout, appropriately emphasizing dramatic developments in the story.
When Ida first embarks to learn her past, her embittered aunt says both as a taunt and as a compassionate warning, “What if you go there and discover there’s no God?” I would not go so far as to say Ida has a crisis of faith, but her resolution and religious certainty is certainly tested by what she learns regarding human depravity, surprising acts of mercy, and her own desires. Ultimately, Ida’s life as a novice, the history of her family, and the time spent with her aunt come to a climax that encapsulates the worldliness of her aunt, her family’s tragic past, and her religious upbringing. This balance is achieved by the scene’s location, its sensual setup, the meticulously placed camera, and the minimal dialogue. Ida’s choice after this moment is foreshadowed by her aunt’s earlier retort: “What sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Whatever choice Ida makes is going to be some sort of sacrifice; the pain and joy of life which she has now experienced will affect her and remain with her.
The window Pawlikowski creates is focused incredibly clearly (both literally and figuratively), and the view it provides is thought-provoking and touching. As a stark contrast to the window-like stationary camera, there are three shots in which the camera moves, (or six if you count a still camera in a moving vehicle) all of them perfectly synchronized immediately before or after a period of change and upheaval in Ida’s life. The final one is a handheld backwards tracking shot, as tenuous and uncertain as the pain and joy of life as well as the reconciliation of past and present as Ida walks towards the unknown future.
Content Advisory: Two off-screen sexual encounters, one with fleeting nudity; an off-screen suicide; tragic themes. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A