Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation.
One of the most fascinating aspects of director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”, is how he shot the movie. Not because the film was shot in black and white, many directors have taken advantage of that stylistic approach, including Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” and the Coen Brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, what I found captivating, was the particular visual aesthetics Mr. Pawlikowski demonstrated throughout the entire movie. Unlike most narrative features, where every camera angle is framed in such a way that it draws your attention to the character or object within the shot, here, everything is slightly askew, with a character off-center or a wine glass almost out of view. And it works, visually.
Mr. Pawlikowski does what you are supposed to do in a movie: let all the action happen within the frame. Too many of today’s filmmakers, Paul Greengrass, Michael Bay, etc., like to shake the camera to nauseating effect and when a big action scene transpires, the camerawork is so frenetic and chaotic that we can barely keep up with what’s going on. “Ida” tells the story of a young nun, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who lives in a convent in 1960’s Poland and who is one week away from taking her vows. She has lived at the convent her whole life, having been abandoned there when she was just an infant and one afternoon, the Mother Superior informs Anna that she has an aunt who lives in town. Unaware that she had any living relatives, she takes a few days to visit with her.
Once there, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) informs her that her real name is Ida and that she is a Jew and that her mother and father were killed during the Nazi occupation. We also find out that Wanda had a baby boy who was also killed so the two of them make their way out to the house that their family used to live in before the war. Not knowing where their remains are buried so they can pay their respects, Wanda finds out that the current family were responsible for their deaths and because Wanda is also a Communist Party insider, she threatens the man of the house until he agrees to take them both to the grave site where their family’s remains lie buried. Only then, can both women come to terms with their tragic past and try to look forward to a very uncertain future.
The movie is sluggish and it stays at that pace for the entire 80 minute run time but it’s the performances by the film’s two leads and the visually arresting manner that the film is presented to us, that keeps our attention. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna has an angelic innocence and her every move and word elegantly shows us the cognizance beneath her calm surface while Agata Kulesza as her estranged aunt, is educated, reticent and, most importantly, very human. Anna has lived in the convent her entire life so she has no idea what life is like on the outside. At one point, Wanda tells Anna that she should get out into the world and experience life before she takes her vows but Anna won’t hear of it, she is determined to be a nun.
Gradually though, Anna’s tough exterior melts away and she becomes inquisitive of everyone and everything around her. She finally smokes a cigarette, has a drink and makes love to a handsome young musician hitchhiker her and Wanda picked up on their way into town. As she came out of her shell, I felt like I was right there with her, watching the whole world go by, wondering what was around the corner and the corner after that. Ultimately though, the big bad world is just too much for her to comprehend, having spent her entire life behind concrete walls with a daily routine that she knows back to front and so she retreats to the sanctuary of the place she knows best where her everyday life will be predictable and uninteresting. At least to those on the outside looking in.
In select theaters May 30th including the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano