Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s (Last Resort and My Summer of Love) latest film Ida, which recently closed the New York Jewish Film Festival, is a delicate, mature, and visually stunning work of art. Ida tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a teenage orphan who grew up in a convent in post-World War II Poland. Anna is one week away from taking her vows as a nun when she is sent by her Mother Superior to meet her only living relative, her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Smoking-drinking-and-one-night-stand Wanda represents all that Sister Anna has been taught to reject: sin and hedonism. Wanda reveals to Anna that her real name is Ida and that her parents were Jews that were persecuted by the Nazis during the war. The film soon becomes a quest for Ida to locate the people who knew her parents and find information about them in order to better understand herself, her past, and possibly her future. The following seven days will mark a growth for Ida, reaching a crossroad where she will have to choose her fate.
Pawlikowski manages to take a simple story with stripped-down images and turn it into an aesthetic filmic masterwork that hypnotizes through unadorned, digital images, shot in 1:37:1 academy ratio that resembles a classic 35 mm film. His black and white cinematography recalls the films of Carl Dreyer and Luchino Visconti. The scenes are refreshingly free from today’s rapid editing, tracking shots, and dynamic CGI; the camera never moves until the film’s final two shots, presenting the story in a very observational and minimalistic style. Static images immerse the viewer into the film’s surroundings with a clear gray tint and fog that envelop the exterior countryside. The frame composition, lighting, and understated acting clearly reveal the director’s mark. Pawlikowski caresses each scene, fully inviting the viewer into a dreamlike and surreal imaginative universe.
Ida erupts with mystery, yet is palpable without exposition. Pawlikowski’s patient tempo, invisible editing, and visual storytelling style recall the best of Terrence Malick. Emphasis is undoubtedly placed on the photographic image. The mise-en-scène is detailed and graceful, and the film’s environment acts as a central character to the story. Pawlikowski often places the action, (the actors) in the lower half of the screen, which provides open space or air to as much as three-quarters of the upper half of the screen. The open space in these quiet, sparse scenes acts like a negative space that allows the viewer to enter into a contemplative, meditative state of mind. Pawlikowski’s elegance also lies in the images he purposely omits, calling for the viewer’s participation in the imagination of the film’s story. In a recent Q & A at the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center, Pawlikowski related that his intention was to allow the viewer to imagine what is outside of the frame. Praise must be given to the film’s two protagonists Kulesza (Wanda) and Trzebuchowska (Ida) for a restrained, dignified, and frighteningly realistic portrayal of two uniquely strong characters.
Ida is an impressive film, deserving high praise. It should stand the test of time not only as a quintessential drama but also as a blueprint for black and white cinematography. The work holds an uncanny sense of verisimilitude while evoking nostalgia for the cinema that was and has sadly passed.
I cannot render enough homage to this touching, ravishing masterpiece.