JB and I saw a remarkable movie this afternoon, Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. It’s a story about a young novitiate, Anna, who is told by her Mother Superior that she must visit her only living relative, an Aunt in Lodz, before she takes her vows. Her Aunt Wanda is in her bathrobe, smoking a cigarette, having a drink, while a man, presumably a casual lover is getting dressed in the bedroom when she greets Anna for the first time. Almost immediately Wanda tells Anna she is a Jew, her real name Ida Lebenstein, and that as a young child she was taken to a convent where she was brought up. The rest of the film explores the clashing and coalescing innocence and experience of these two women regarding their pasts in the complicated historical context of Poland, which includes the Holocaust and Communism.
The film is shot in black and white and is more square than wide-screen format. The composition of the shots reminds one of Japanese cinematography like the films by Ozu, with figures walking off-camera, and shots where the actors are at the very bottom of the screen with the background taking up 95% of the composition. There is one scene where Anna is in the convent and only the top of her head to just below her eyes is visible in the frame. The rest of the frame (about 90%) is taken up by an empty wall of the church. The black and white and this severe composition help to shape the self-revelations both women experience, though it is not altogether clear or even meant for us to know what specifically those insights are. It is this mystery, and the work the viewer has to do to put the pieces together, which actually saves the film from becoming too melodramatic or sentimental.
The actress who plays Anna, Agata Trzebuchowska, is an unknown. This is her first film. She barely speaks and doesn’t give away much behind her demure face. However, she is brilliant in this role, her features almost Vermeer-like. Wanda, on the other hand, Agata Kulesza, is brash, assertive, sarcastic, and without sentiment–she tells it like it is, but this behavior is survival mode and her wounds finally overtake her.
This film grapples with questions of complicity and denial, innocence and guilt, faith and lack of faith. Ida is a stunning and extraordinary film.