Film: Ida

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Ida | Director Pawel Pawlikowski | Score: 6.6

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has a way of constructing his frame so that his characters appear at the bottom edge, with the widest expanse of screen over their heads, as if to suggest both the vulnerable placement of his protagonists, and also the vastness of the impenetrable world around them.

The film plays out as a bit of a mystery: A young novice named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), in early ’60s Poland, several weeks from taking her vows as a nun in the convent she was raised in, gets to visit her only living relative, an aunt in a nearby town, whom she has never met. Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) turns out to be formidable, both a heavy-drinking and lusty firebrand, and a powerful judge at the local magistrate. Wanda explains to Anna that not only is her real name Ida, but that she is actually Jewish — her parents both being executed during the war.

Together, the unlikely pair seek out the former house of Ida’s parents, out in the rural countryside where a Catholic family now resides. In the course of their journey, Ida discovers much more about her parents’ tragic story, and perhaps the source of Wanda’s misery.

But this isn’t a simple sort of conceit, a “personal journey” wherein the closeted nun-to-be, learns about the joys of the hedonist life from her fun-loving aunt. Pawlikowski is after something much more meaningful and subtle. Ida does get to experience a significant taste of the outside world, but that hardly means it pulls her away from her faith.

It’s an old-school sort of value, enhanced appreciably by Pawlikowski’s use of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, one favored by the silent films of the ’20s and ’30s, and the lustrous black and white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, which, as with the aforementioned careful framing, is often stunning.

But none of the film’s beauty masks the difficulty of its subject matter, nor the dark, ominous skies that seem ever prevalent as the characters make their way through the Polish countryside. Pawlkiowski also favors a simplified story-telling technique, whereby he cuts scenes abruptly, with very little non-essential material. As a result its 80-minute runtime feels cut to the absolute bone, a detail that works very well with the choice of brooding subject matter. With the exception of the deeply wounded Wanda, none of the characters speak much more than they absolutely have to, a way to suggest the lack of conversation on the subject of the war and the shattering guilt still felt between countrymen.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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