Agata Trzebuchowska as a young novitiate nun in Pawel Pawlikowski's haunting 2013 film Ida.
There is only one problem with Ida, the mesmerizing new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski: the sad fact that it won't get a long run at local theatres. In fact, as of this writing there is only a single screening remaining in its brief run at the Vancity Theatre on Seymour: this evening, Wednesday, May 21st at 8:30 pm.
Ida is set in Poland during the 1960s. The film opens at a Polish convent, with Anna, a young novitiate about to take her vows as a Catholic nun. As she meets with the Mother Superior, Anna is informed that they have finally (after years of silence) had word back from Anna's only living relative, her aunt Wanda. The Mother Superior tells Anna that she is to travel and visit with her aunt before taking her vows, and Anna reluctantly complies. When Anna arrives, instead of warmth and affection, she is greeted with coolness and disdain by her aunt, a judge, who bluntly informs her niece that her actual name is Ida, that she is a Jew, and that her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation. After this rocky beginning the two eventually set out together, in an attempt to try and discover the truth behind these disturbing events.
Ida is another demonstration of the rich possibilities still to be found in black and white cinematography (the 2009 film The White Ribbon is another excellent example). The cinematography in Ida (by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) is simply stunning: each shot would stand on its own as a single still photograph (it is worth noting that the film uses an unusual aspect ratio, close to square). In each scene the subjects and landscapes are perfectly framed by the camera, the palette a gorgeous composition in deep, sumptuous blacks, subtle greys, and white. Pawlikowski uses a static camera almost exclusively: the action of the film occurs within the fixed boundaries of the frame, the actors occasionally moving into and out of frame, their paths almost predictable from the way the shot has been composed. I can only recall a single instance where I noticed the camera panning (and even then it was a brief pan, from one perfectly-framed shot to another, just as perfectly framed). This style of camera work contributes to the slow and deliberate pacing of the film, and helps to create Ida's mesmerizing atmosphere, and the sense that the events being shown on-screen are inevitable, one event leading inexorably to another, towards an unavoidable (if unpredictable) conclusion.
Anna/Ida is played by the lovely young actress Agata Trzebuchowska, who reminds me of the younger Mariel Hemingway as I remember her from Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan: there is the same sense of purity and innocence about her, which perfectly suits the character she plays here: a naif, but not (as we will ultimately learn) someone without a will. The character she plays is a bit of an enigma, her face revealing little emotion, even as she learns about the dark events from her family's (and her country's) past; we can't really tell what she is thinking, or what path she will ultimately take.
There is tragedy here, and Ida does not shrink from confronting the dark past of contemporary Poland, nor from drawing attention to the likelihood that there were many who were complicit in the events of the Nazi occupation. As the film suggests, the silent forests which line the dirt roads of these rural landscapes hold many secrets which will never be revealed.