By Afra Nariman
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Stars: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
A woman, Ida is on the path to becoming a nun when she meets her long lost Aunt and last living relative, Wanda, who informs Ida that she is Jewish. Over a decade removed from World War II and the Nazi regime, the two newly acquainted relatives set out to learn more about the death of Ida’s parents and about her family heritage.
Ida is an artistic masterpiece of simplicity, elegance and efficiency. It tells the unique story of a Jewish woman who grew up in a Catholic convent, en route to becoming a nun. It is revealed in the film that while the rest of her family was murdered during the Nazi’s occupancy of Poland, she was spared because at her age it was impossible to tell whether she was Jewish or not, so she was left at a Church in hopes that she would survive the war. Now she has grown up, and after meeting her long lost Aunt and learning that she comes from Jewish heritage, she is curious to learn more about her family history and find out where her parents are buried. Ida and Wanda set off on a road trip to learn more about each other and their family.
The film’s ability to tell such a powerful and serious story in such a short amount of time is remarkable. Additionally, the film doesn’t rely much on dialogue, only offering short and blunt conversations. Instead, the film relies on the fragmented camera shots and visuals, short scenes depicting simple activities incorporated in between the substantial ones, along with the characters’ body language and facial expressions, to do the bulk of the story telling. What makes this film truly special is its level of stillness throughout. There is minimal movement, everything transpires slowly on the screen. The combination of beautiful, scenic landscapes and short, creative shots makes Ida a mood piece; it is aesthetically pleasing in the best ways that elegant art pieces are.
Integrated into the main plot are the themes of freedom, personality and life. What makes this film interesting is that it explores the dichotomy between its two main characters. Both women are deeply involved with an ideology or way of life that they are expected to adhere to. Though, the two women are very different from one another. One is a young, religious Catholic, the other a tested Communist intellectual. Ida is on her way to becoming a nun and must live her life accordingly, while Wanda, as a highly regarded member of Poland’s Communist regime, as a judge and a former war hero, is expected to live according to Poland’s values. We see each character deal with their inner struggle between who they are expected to be and who they really are. Wanda is a heavy drinker and seems to feel depressed and trapped by her existence, jumping at any opportunity to let loose and express her freedom. Additionally, while on the road with Ida, Wanda relives her past and remembers the pain and death that was inflicted on her family and her people during the war. On the other hand, Ida is young and although she has trained her entire life to be a nun, she finds herself curious of what lies outside of that possibility. Early in the film, in response to Ida admitting she has never had any thoughts about making love, Wanda says:
At one point in the film, Wanda also expresses her wish for Ida to experience more in her life and not waste it away, without ever getting to know what else is out there for her. This idea sits with Ida until towards the end of the film, after her Aunt has committed suicide, she decides to give that life her Aunt spoke so highly of a chance. She takes a couple days off from being a nun-in-training and even sleeps with the man she has come to know over the previous days. At the end of the night, the man asks Ida to accompany him and his band on the road, to which Ida responds by asking what comes after that. The man goes on to paint her a picture of their potential life together: family, dog, house, etc… Ida says nothing but leaves while the man is asleep. The film ends by giving us the impression that the normal, family life is not what Ida was after. She wanted her life to have meaning or excitement, and for her, the normal life that the man was offering was not enough to make her change course. In search of a meaningful life, she ultimately decides to continue on her path to becoming a Catholic nun; but at least she got to experience what her Aunt wanted for her and realize for herself what it is that she will be sacrificing when she takes her vows.
Ida doesn’t try too hard to excite you or to become a film that could be considered an epic. Although it is a relatively short film, nothing is rushed and nothing is forced. Ida is an elegantly natural and intimate story about a young woman, who while on a journey towards learning about her heritage and finding the remains of her family, she ends up finding herself along the way as well. It is also a story that highlights the realities of Communist-Poland and the lasting effects on the families haunted by the Nazi regime in World War II. Nevertheless, this is a minimalist film that in many ways falls under the road-genre. Although not explicitly intended, the film’s emotional significance seems to evolve as the story slowly progresses. By the end, we realize that we were on this life-altering journey with Ida and Wanda. Ida doesn’t rely on dialogue or movement to tell its story; instead it embraces stillness and simple visuals, resulting in what comes across as a true work of art, in concert with a level of simplistic sublimity. This film is flawless.