In 2014, few films are simple. We occupy a culture of instant gratification, where time itself has become a phantom. The act of waiting is seemingly lost, where home-cooked meals are traded for Chick-fil-A, and any movie, song, or book is two clicks away. The blockbuster aisle waddle, where you walk with an awkward gait as you scan shelves in slow motion hoping to find just the right rental, has become a relic of the ‘90s and the ‘00s. No longer are we a patient people, and the movies, with their third-act CGI vs. CGI battles, roaring scores and over-elaborate plotting, are a sad and evident reaction to the latest cultural paradigm. I expect that from movie studios, but, maybe naively, I don’t expect that from independent and foreign films. But those too have been poisoned. That’s not to say they’re bad—Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is embellished and labored but also great. But Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida bravely embraces the simple way to tell, and more importantly to show, a story. It couldn’t have come at a better time, acting as a startling but refreshing reminder to the power of simplicity.
I expect I doth protest! emails pointing me towards Jonathan Glazer’s uber sleek and simple Under the Skin, but nothing in that film reduces its content to its bare possible minimum the way it is done in Ida. Here, Pawlikowski is at a career high of ambitiousness, with the sure-handed confidence he can do so little to move you so much. Ida hopes for nothing less than to tackle the geopolitical landscape of 1960s Poland, intertwining Jew politics, Nazi politics, communist politics, religious politics, and feminine politics into a reduced, focused story about an 18-year-old nun on the cusp of taking her vows. She’s sent to an old Aunt (Agata Kulesza) whom she has never met, a daunting task since we learn she’s spent her entire life in relative seclusion at a religious convent—this is her first full journey to the outside world. What follows is a delicately told odyssey into a past best left undiscovered, and she wrestles with history just as she wrestles with a world that was previously unknown to her.
Ida’s story unfolds in carefully pruned layers that contextualize post-World War II Poland with an otherworldly gaze that leaves her, much like it did me watching it, repulsed and transfixed all at once. It dares to ask the devastating question of how your sense of self might be affected by learning your past is directly connected to atrocity. Ida (the character) is a generation away from the horrors of Nazism, but the ghosts left in its wake have the power to haunt. Ida is about that haunting and how to fight against it if possible. There’s a psychological complexity at play that’s easy to miss on a first viewing, and the underlying meanings are open to many interpretations.
The titular character is played with shocking gusto by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska. Recalling Lamberto Maggioarani from Bicycle Thieves, Trzebuchowska isn’t an actor, has no plans to become one, and was discovered in a coffee shop. She imbues Ida with a quiet intensity, and in keeping with what appears to be Pawlikowski’s grand homage to silent cinema, she says everything she needs to through an utterly expressive face. She has one of those faces like Maria Falconnetti in Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, where the eyes carry vital emotion that just jumps out at you with unexpected force. Trzebuchowska’s is a heart-hitting turn, and you uncontrollably open up to her. Ida is the first film truly since Raise the Red Lantern in 1991, an absorbing drama about a concubine in 1920s China, that could say everything it needs to through powerful, well-chosen images: neo silent cinema. Characters are submitted to the corners of the frame, fighting for space in the image as much as they fight for space in their own lives.
In Ida, cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewki use black and white photography to create a sensuous sense of space and touch that immediately relates characters to their role in the story. Ida is visual storytelling at its finest, and few films bother with images this exact or uncomplicated. There’s a palpable distance from the naturalistic, and the cumulative visual effect veers towards abstraction. Outside of her hotel room and facing a modernist spiral staircase, Ida debates joining a handsome saxophone player in the bar. Ida stands conflicted, with lines twisting and turning downward, visually illustrating her temptation.
By moving from relative seclusion into a world rich with cigarette smoke, tragedy, and pleasure, Ida digests a lifetime of experience in only days. They may be just days, but she undergoes a volcano of emotions that erupt inside her, each she tries to subdue more than the last. There’s a conflict that risks engrossing her, where earthly, carnal, sensuous pleasures threaten her rigid devotion to God. As you can see, Ida is unafraid of delving into any topic or theme, but its brilliance is how you don’t realize the full breadth of its narrative net until hours after watching it. No film in 2014 this simple is also this dense, and that makes Ida very special.
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