Film review: Style and substance combine forcefully in Ida

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Agata Trzebuchowska delivers a strong performance in the powerful story of Ida, a woman searching the past for details of her true identity. Publicity photo Agata Trzebuchowska delivers a strong performance in the powerful story of Ida, a woman searching the past for details of her true identity. Publicity photo

The most beguiling thing about Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is its look. Its cinematography, by Ryszard Lenczewksi and Lukasz Zal, is so beautiful that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a challenging drama about faith, love, loss, and the ravages of war on identity.

Each shot is so artfully composed, in fact, that the photographic artistry at times threatens to eclipse what is otherwise an emotional journey. So many times Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) sits, her head centered in the lower third of the frame, an enormous window (or wall or door or cross) rounding out the top two-thirds, that it’s easy to get lost in the expanse of the background.

That’s a long way of saying Ida will have an effect on its viewers, though what effect will be entirely subjective—even more than most movies. I was moved more by its style, the way the characters are often dwarfed by their surroundings, and how the sun never seems to shine in the section of Poland where Ida takes place.

Maybe that’s part of Ida’s purpose, to show us how bleak and unknowable everything is. Its characters’ lives are overshadowed by World War II—Ida takes place in the early 1960s—communism, and it seems no one cares about the horrors perpetrated on them in the 1940s.

Those horrors are past but ever-present: namely, the lingering and horrible ramifications of the Holocaust. Anna is young, perhaps 20 years old, and weeks away from taking her vows and becoming a nun. She’s summoned to the city by her only surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza, who should be nominated for every award), a judge and former prosecutor. Wanda is filled with regret, and decides she must let Anna, an orphan, know exactly whom she is.

Anna’s parents were Jews who were killed during the war. Anna’s real name is Ida, and there’s a family farm where Wanda wants to take her to learn her real family history.

One of the strengths of Ida is Kulesza, and the other is Trzebuchowska, who makes the choice to play Anna as largely passive and composed. Where Wanda smokes and drinks and gets into trouble, Anna quietly takes in her surroundings and observes.

The aesthetic refinements of Ida, ultimately, do get in the way of the story, though there is something refreshing about a camera that doesn’t move much, and lets its characters have space. There’s also a matter-of-factness to the drama, and Pawlikowski wisely lets things play out quickly, never letting a scene linger when it should end (perhaps that’s why Ida is 82 minutes long).

In the movie’s final half-hour, Anna is faced with many choices, most of them stemming from existential questions—live as a Jew? Live as a Catholic? Choose something different?—and there are no answers, at least not by the time the credits roll. Ida is a markedly different movie in a summer full of schlock, and the perfect antidote to mindless entertainment. There’s plenty of thinking to do during its brief run time and after its conclusion.

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