Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, one of the best movies of the year, takes its cue and a lot of its look from the European films of the 1950's and 60's- filmed in a stark and beautiful black and white (and in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio) and with a minimalist acting style, it recalls the best of directors like Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman. But the story is all its own, and entirely focused on the inner lives of two women, which helps it to stand apart from many of the movies that are coming out this year, and every year, which so often focus on the journey, inner or otherwise, of a male protagonist.
Pawlikowski though, is interested in something else, which is the life the young woman in question, Ida, played by amateur actress Agata Trzebuchowska. She's maybe twenty years old, and was brought up in a convent since birth, never having set foot outside the hallowed walls of the church, with its formidable nuns roaming the hallways. She was an orphan who doesn't know who she is or where she came from, and is suddenly confronted by the appearance of her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda Gruz, played by Agata Kulesza. Ida must see this relative for two days before taking her vows, and though she doesn't want to, she follows her orders and goes to visit this older woman, her mother's sister, who is unfriendly and at first harsh towards her, but is rather quickly exposed as a person who's been suffering from grief, guilt and the pain of a traumatic past involving the mystery of Ida's parents.
It's Poland in the early to mid 1960's, and many, especially Jews, are still reeling from the horrors inflicted on the population during WWII. As Wanda takes Ida under her wing, she resolves to give her some kind of identity and resolution (Ida didn't even know she was Jewish) and the two embark on a quest to find out what happened to her parents and where they are buried. In a sense, this is partly a coming of age story, as Ida observes the outside world for the first time and comes into contact with people and activities she's never before been let in on. But her reactions to these observances remain oblique, and Ida herself is a largely inscrutable character whose inner thoughts we are never allowed to penetrate. Trzebuchowska has a strikingly unique and mournful face, which Pawlekowski focuses on in closeups, and although her eyes are always alert and focused, she herself remains an intriguing cypher, as we are left to wonder what she's thinking and feeling at any given moment, even in the later parts of the film, where a series of startlingly drastic decisions give us a hint as to her thought processes, but only just, before she pulls back into her own isolation.
Ida's aunt is just the opposite, a hard drinker and former Communist party member with a terribly bleak past, and we are let in on her history, her regrets, and her personal devastation so as to feel unsurprised by her own sudden and impactful decision later in the film. The journey and the bond that these two women make in their short but meaningful two days together is powerfully felt, even within the style that Pawlekowski chooses to film, which employs the subtle, understated, Bresson-style of acting where looks and actions are quiet, yet beautifully wrought and rendered quite effective. The film is something of a throwback to the 50's and 60's style of New Wave filmmaking, yet the story is harrowing and the mystery not just of Ida's parents, but Ida herself remains a compelling and fascinating subject. This is Poland's Oscar submission in the Best Foreign Language Film race this year, and though it's not the sentimental, overly emotional kind of film that often wins in the category, the beauty of the filmmaking and the powerful simplicity of the story (which comes in at just 80 minutes) could easily make an impact on the voters. Seek it out if you can- this movie should not be overlooked.
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