Ida (2013, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski) is a truly great film – quietly brilliant, visually stunning, and emotionally powerful. It tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, who, before taking her vows to become a fully initiated nun, discovers a disturbing family secret recalling the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Along with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), she embarks on a journey of self-discovery, learning about life, love, and a devastating family history.
I’m going to cut to the chase and say that I absolutely loved this. From the very beginning, to the final shot, this film is a subdued, minimalist piece of art. This sense of ‘art’ comes from the stellar performances by leading ladies Trzebuchowska and Kulesza, the evocative direction and cinematography, the captivating story, and finally, the natural story development and method of storytelling. All of these elements together form a film that is pretty much flawless, if you’re a fan of intense, contemplative, well-expressed drama.
Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska absolutely shines as Sister Anna, the titular Ida. I keep using the word minimal, but her performance epitomises the word – at times, the slight movements of her face are enough to convey an entire idea or approach towards a certain story development. Anna is a quiet character, so this makes sense, but it’s pretty difficult to achieve, which makes this performance very special indeed. There’s one moment where Anna, after returning to the convent after meeting her aunt, stifles a giggle at the dinner table whilst all of the other nuns are in complete silence. This one moment by this brand new actress says more than any paragraph of dialogue ever could, when in the context of the other story developments. It’s amazing and it’s not something you often see. The more well-known Polish actress Agata Kulesza is also great as Anna’s aunt Wanda, and her performance is a different type of quiet – passionate anger and heated emotions brewing beneath a calm surface. Her character is seemingly more complex than Anna’s, but Anna is more of an enigma since she doesn’t often verbalise her feelings. Although these characters have their differences, watching them eventually build solidarity in their search for information is just one of the excellent things about this film.
Visually, Ida is a stunner. It’s filmed in black and white, with rich greys in between, and if I could have first guessed I would have said it was filmed on old film stock – it has that somewhat faded, grainy vintage look that older films have. But it’s actually filmed on digital, and once you know that, the choice to make some shots more grainy or out of focus makes total sense. There are some fairly experimental camera angles and interesting use of space that catch you off guard, just as the story eventually catches you off guard. This director seems to really love steady establishing shots that show us exactly what the characters are doing – whether it’s lying on the ground prostrate at the convent, or taking a long, purposeful drag of a cigarette. The visuals of Ida are just as important, and occasionally more important, when compared to the dialogue, which is equally minimal but filled with meaning. There are no words or visuals wasted in this film. Everything seems to be intentionally crafted, yet naturally formed. It’s an interesting dichotomy that makes for a very significant film-viewing experience.
Throughout the whole film, there’s an interesting framing of each shot where there’s a lot of space at the top of the frame; as if the film is encouraging its audience to look towards the heavens. This looks quite amazing and striking during the silent moments, and creates some shots that look stunningly beautiful; stills that could easily be printed out, blown up and framed on a wall. The cinematography and art of this film is very affecting. The only issue with this kind of framing is that, for us non-Polish speakers, it can become annoying as some of the subtitles at the bottom tend to cover the characters’ faces. This only happened a couple of times, but when it did, it really distracted me from what I was watching on screen.
I’ve read some reviews of Ida that describe it as ‘haunting’, and I would definitely agree with that assessment, particularly after we find out the disturbing nature of Anna’s family secret. This film has stuck with me ever since I watched it. Some film-viewers may not enjoy the pacing, which can be slow at times. But it’s intentionally slow so that the audience can fully take in a scene and its message – the pacing is very deliberate. I would say that Ida is the definition of a slow-burning film; at the beginning, life at the convent is slow and repetitive, but the story becomes more mobile (although still quite contemplative) as the family mystery begins to be unravelled. Not everyone will like this film, and I don’t think it’s for everyone. But it really is an excellent piece of cinema, and a work of art on many levels.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!