From the opening moments of “Ida,” the Polish film from director Pawel Pawlikowski—that plays in competition at the Marrakech Film Festival, but is already trailing awards from TIFF (FIPRESCI critics award) and Warsaw (Grand Prix), having also elicited a rave from our own Oli Lyttelton when he saw it in London—it’s clear that we’re in for something unusual. Shot in a boxy aspect ratio, in rich, complex black and white, the film isn’t simply stylistically arresting, however; these first few moments find us in a quiet cloister of a Polish convent in the 1960s as a group of novice nuns silently, piously, go about restoring a statue of Christ, returning it to its plinth in the convent’s snowy grounds. This wordless beginning, told in beautifully composed shots, sets the mood for a small, quiet, polished film that unfolds slowly but with remarkable assurance and features a striking central performance from Agata Trzebuchowska. Or rather a striking central performance from Agata Trzebuchowska’s face, because it is her watchful, dark-eyed, unblemished visage, usually framed by a plain gray wimple that is perhaps the film’s most evocative recurring image, even amongst so much truly remarkable cinematography (from neophyte cinematographer Lucasz Zal).
Ida, or Sister Anna as she is here initially, is an orphan who has been raised in a convent and is about to take her vows. But at this juncture, the aunt who has not made contact with her in years finally does so and Ida is firmly directed by the Mother Superior to go and stay with her a while. Ida, it turns out, unbeknownst to herself, is the surviving child of Jewish parents who were killed during the war and together with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) she embarks on a road trip to try and learn more about the circumstances of their deaths. Wanda, a hard-edged woman of more earthy pleasures than her ethereal niece has encountered before, is herself a successful and respected judge, whose uncompromising pursuit of the enemies of the communist regime in post-war Poland earned her the nickname “Red Wanda.” And so the stage is set for an odd-couple road movie, a kind of Polish “Nebraska” without the bittersweet irony, but that is really only half the story. In fact, the mystery aspect of the film (how and by whom were Ida’s family killed, and where are their remains) is less interesting to Pawilowski than the way this journey affects his young protagonist, and the larger narrative is really one of a kind of austere Rumspringa as Ida is exposed to the vices and seductions (personified by a hitchhiking jazz saxophonist played by Dawid Ogrodnik) of the world outside the convent.
The film, however, thankfully never overplays the loss (or abdication) of innocence theme. In fact, the peculiar grace of the story is in how subtly yet evocatively the various themes are outlined—it’s a light touch that is welcome because of the heavy nature of the subject matter: communism, anti-semitism, catholicism, guilt and faith all cast in the lengthening shadow of the Holocaust. While a less delicate approach could easily have ended up heavy-handed, there are times when the film’s restraint slightly frustrates, holding us at arm’s length from Ida when we’d like to get a little closer. It’s especially noticeable at the film’s close, which, absent Wanda’s abrasive presence, feels a bit bloodless despite the drama of the events it depicts. But perhaps it’s churlish to point this out when in fact that same coolness is what gives added impact by contrast, to one of our favorite moments from any film this year: when Ida, returned to the convent having laid some of the ghosts of her past to rest, allows herself the tiniest of sudden laughs while eating with the other nuns. It’s a moment of rare expressiveness from Ida, and it’s so small you could nearly miss it, yet in that moment we suddenly understand her, not in the kind of detached and observed fashion in which she is mostly presented to us, but from the inside out, and it makes sense of all of her subsequent decisions.
Director Pawlikowski is U.K.-based and his previous films, including “My Summer Of Love,” “Last Resort” and “The Woman in the Fifth” bear very little resemblance to “Ida.” This is clearly a very personal project of homecoming for the director: the film’s period detailing, and the very convincing sense of its time in history and place in the world are unmistakably authentic. And if it does suffer slightly from an overall lack of urgency that will mean those looking for a more directly emotive experience may find it hard to engage with, the more patient viewer has rewards in store that are rich and rare indeed. Most evocatively, the way the camera presents Trzebuchowska’s face is almost worthy of an essay in itself, like a living experiment in the identification process in cinema. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that what you take from this thoughtful, artful film will largely depend on how much you are willing to invest in that intensely serene, unfathomable mask. [B+]