Polish film delicately probes country’s difficult history
SHOT in a sublimely bleak black-and-white in the quaintly squarish Academy ratio (1.375:1), director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida has the look and feel of an eastern European film product of the early 1960s era in which it is set. Almost. Its subject matter — Poland’s uncomfortable history of collusion with Nazis and the country’s subsequent political swing to communism — separates it from its antecedents. This wasn’t the kind of material freely addressed in the early ’60s in Polish cinema. Even so, Pawlikowski frames the events with surprising delicacy through the characters of the convent-raised orphan Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). A week before she is to take her vows to become a nun herself, Anna is sent to meet with Wanda, her one living relative. Within a minute of opening the door, Wanda delivers this shocking news: “You’re a Jew.” Anna’s birth name is Ida. The rest of their family perished under mysterious circumstances. Wanda is a judge known as “Red Wanda” for the harsh punishments she had meted out to enemies of socialism. But she is apparently moved by Ida’s resemblance to her own dead sister, and agrees Their journey is photographed in diffused winter light with often eccentric framing, emphasizing empty spaces at the top of the frame that could suggest either a godly presence, as per Ida, or an absence, as per Wanda. In the title role, Trzebuchowska is kind of a living embodiment of the Kuleshov film theory, wherein audiences assign subjective meaning to a neutral image. Her disquieting gaze is a blank slate upon which Pawlikowski makes his inquiry into the nature of identity. In the role of Wanda, Agata Kulesza’s face is likewise frequently seen in repose, but this more seasoned actress layers depths of anguish, regret and self-loathing on that still visage. In looks and ability, Kulesza reminds one of powerhouse American actress Amy Ryan, but by the end of this movie, she transcends such comparisons with her ownership of this difficult role. While often described as a Polish filmmaker, Pawel Pawlikowski’s past films ( The Last Resort, The Woman in the Fifth) have largely been made elsewhere in Europe. With Ida, he impresses as a new and powerful voice in Polish cinema.
Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida.