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IDA (2014) review

May 29, 2014

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written by: Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Pawel Pawlikowski

produced by: Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol and Ewa Puszczynska

directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski

rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking)

runtime: 80 min.

U.S. release date: March 26, 2014 (limited)

 

It happens once, maybe twice a year. At least I hope it does. A certain film will completely win me over. It will remind me of the transporting power of cinema and it will introduce me to actors I’ve never heard of or seen before or a director whose films I haven’t yet seen – in this case, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” did all of that and more. It’s the first film of the year that I can call beautiful and touching and hypnotic. It’s also the first film I’ve seen this year that made me want to see it again – immediately.

“Ida” takes place in early 1960s Poland. Eighteen year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows at the remote abbey where she lives. She grew up there as an orphan. It’s all she knows. Before she can make the big commitment, her mother superior informs her of a family she never knew she had. She’s told it’s a requirement that she visit her aunt in a nearby city, perhaps to know something of her past, something of the world before leaving it altogether.

When Anna arrives at her the apartment of her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a hardened middle-aged woman and former prosecutor (known as “Red Wanda”), who now works as a judge for the Stalinist regime, her life is changed forever. She is bluntly given the Cliff Notes to a past she never knew she had. She is told her real name is Ida (pronounced Ee-duh) Lebenstein and she is a Jew. As a baby, Ida was sent to the abbey for adoption where she was raised, right before her parents went into hiding with a Christian family.

That’s supposedly the story. As if that’s not enough to take in, there’s more.

 

Ida, London Film Festival 2013

 

 

Wanda informs Ida that because her parents were thought to have perished in the war, the location of their burial is unknown. Their encounter was originally designed to be purely introductory, but Wanda now finds herself driving Ida to the village where her parents were last seen, hoping that maybe someone knows anything about what happened to them.

It could also be that Ida reminds Wanda of her sister (Ida’s mother), not just in looks, but in the soulful purity they both share. This encounter has stirred feelings that, as a functioning alcoholic, she has probably submerged. She misses her sister and has her own harrowing heartbreak about the family’s troubling past, but here is Ida, a strong yet naive young woman who is about to make the biggest decision of her life.

They couldn’t be more different, which makes their road trip all the more captivating. Wanda has presumably experienced a great deal of pain in her life and as a bureaucrat of the legal system, she has probably caused her share as well. One gets the idea that her bull-dozing cynicism and care-free demeanor mask this pain and most likely the guilt as well. A weary sadness is revealed that she does her best to conceal, but it seems like being around the pious Ida starts a process of peeling away the layers Wanda has developed over time. She may not think much of the God her niece has faith in, but she can’t help but have respect for this wide-eyed girl. What the two of them learn along the way will be an irreversible gut-punch that will undeniably draw them closer.

 

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That sums up “Ida” well enough without giving anything away, but there is so much more to take in here. I recommend doing so slowly, one frame at a time, because just on pure visuals, this is a film that will stay with you. Pawlikowski’s decision to shoot in black and white suits the material well. So much, in fact, that I couldn’t imagine seeing the actor’s faces and the distinct Polish locations any other way. Our eyes know color, but getting re-acquainted with black and white is a welcome treat for the senses. At one point, Wanda makes a comment about how beautiful Ida’s red hair is (which is covered up throughout most of the picture) and when Ida eventually reveals her hair, we see the red even though there’s no color. It’s not all stark contrast as one might think, there are varying gray tones, grainy gradations and over-exposed light that casts heavy shadows on wooden floors. There’s also billowing smoke, static fog and falling snow stand out even more – I could go on, but you get the idea.

It’s not just the use of black and white that make Pawlikowski’s visuals stand out. His framing and deliberate placement of characters is noteworthy as well. Many of the actors are off to the left, at the bottom of the screen to portray their insignificance or almost as if their environment has something to say as well (and quite often, it feels like there’s a work of art around them). There’s also the artful way a trunk door of a car or an arch in a wall frames characters. “Ida” is definitely a film to come back to, simply to take in the look again and find new images to admire on repeated viewings.

As for the acting, the two Agatas are amazing. They deliver truly memorable performances with such natural truth. Kulesza, a veteran Polish actress of stage and screen (small and big) plays what could have been a one-note character with surprisingly rich layers. Her emotive face is tremendously engaging as Wanda tries to wrap her mind around this new addition in her life. She has a fascinating way with a complex character. Newcomer Trzebuchowska is quite a find as Ida. Literally, she was a student found in a cafe in Warsaw. With her dark eyes, round cheekbones that point to a pronounced dimple on her chin, she certainly has a striking look that would make a casting director stop and notice. It’s no wonder the young musician (David Ogrodnik) Ida meets later on in the film falls for her. It’s hard to believe this role is her first when we see the way she handles challenging scenes (like when Ida is first told the truth of the past) and her near-silent observance of the world outside the abbey.

“Ida” has made it’s rounds internationally on the festival circuit within the past year, playing at Sundance back in January here  in the States. While it’s currently seeing a limited theatrical release, thanks to Music Box Films, it’s a film that should be seen by as many film enthusiasts as possible and should (and I believe will) make it on several year-end lists.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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