Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, up for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, is a rare film that focuses more so on showing than telling (not unlike Bergman films). (Unfortunately this article is being written a mere five days prior to the Academy Awards, so the mystery will have been already revealed by the time your eyes read these words).
Set in 1960s Poland (formerly the Polish People’s Republic), we are introduced to Anna, a novice nun preparing to take her vows. Anna is told by her prioress that she must first visit her aunt Wanda, who is her only living relative. It is through this meeting with her aunt Wanda that Anna’s world is shaken.
Wanda acts as a deliberate foil to Anna; Wanda is a sexually promiscuous chain-smoking alcoholic judge, who gives in to temptation and satisfies most of her inner desires, whereas Anna is an abstinent, straight-edged nun who lives entirely for the church.
Upon meeting Wanda, Anna is told that she is not actually who she thinks she is, but rather, she is Ida Lebenstein. Wanda reveals that Ida’s parents were of Jewish faith and that they were murdered during the German occupation of Poland in WWII. Ida was raised as orphan Anna in the convent and has lived there ever since being taken in.
Anna/Ida’s aunt Wanda tries to open her eyes and show her that there is more to life than the convent in which she grew up. Wanda introduces Ida to her various vices, as well as jazz music, and even tries to set her up with a man.
Ida, more interested in unearthing her past, ignores her aunt’s behaviour and the two of them search for the location of her parents’ remains.
Shot in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, Ida at first glance appears to be a film from many decades ago, yet it is crisp and so beautifully shot that it is clear that it was recently crafted. This gives Ida a timeless quality; if you stumbled upon the film and didn’t know any information about it, you would have difficulty placing its inception.
As mentioned above, the film shows more than it tells. There are of course dialogue sequences and verbal interactions between characters, however there are an abundance of non-verbal scenes in which the audience must deal with the uncertainty of Ida’s situation alongside her. We come to understand Ida not through her words, but through her body language.
The film is gorgeously shot, showcasing the serene beauty of Poland’s landscape. Each shot of Anna/Ida has this divine, iconic quality, which I’m sure is every bit intentional as it is ironic (given her religious upbringing).
Film critic David Denby provides some contextual information about the time period the film is set in: “Between 1939 and 1945, Poland lost a fifth of its population, including three million Jews. In the two years after the war, Communists took over the government under the eyes of the Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the N.K.V.D. Many Poles who were prominent in resisting the Nazis were accused of preposterous crimes; the independent-minded were shot or hanged. In the movie, none of this is stated, but all of it is built, so to speak, into the atmosphere…”
Denby dubs Ida “a compact masterpiece [that] has the curt definition and the finality of a reckoning—a reckoning in which anger and mourning blend together.”
Ida is ultimately about the struggle of identity. Who is Anna/Ida? Does she discover who she (thinks she) is? Is that even an answerable question in the context of an 80 minute film? Ida is about trying to make sense of a world that appears senseless.
Please join us for a free screening of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida on Wednesday, March 4 at Market Hall (140 Charlotte Street). The show begins at 8pm.