Shot in Bergman-approved 4:3, Pawel Pawlikowski's gorgeously bleak "Ida" is a keen retrograde study of classic European cinema that simultaneously feels timeless. It reaches back to the advent of the Eastern European art film in its rhetorical musings, but it doesn't succumb to the cute conventions of a period piece, which make its setting difficult to pin down (probably somewhere in the late-1950s, given the key presence of Coltrane’s pre-A Love Supreme music in the film). But with its elegant imagery and a story that follows suit, the film has a genuine feel and demands to be taken seriously.
In parsing the solace sought by Christians, Jews, and nonbelievers in Cold War-era Poland, "Ida" asks eternal questions to which it can't possibly offer comfort or closure, so it doesn't try. Pawlikowski avoids peddling in pedantic philosophizing, nor does he seek epiphanies in tortuous sensationalism in order to leave his viewers utterly depressed; he instead reflects on the everyday sadness that pervades common life. His is an eye and ear for truth instead of facts — Bergman by way of Tom Wolfe, if you will — but without the exclamation points. Notions of identity and the self— temporal, tangible, ethereal, spiritual are threaded through each scene, and the duality of life and death lingers in every shot.
"Ida" requires some commitment on the viewer's part, but its sober, silent rewards are profound. A young nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) on the verge of taking her vows discovers that her name isn't actually Anna, but Ida, and she is actually Jewish, contrary to her life-long conviction. Her family was murdered and buried in the forlorn backwoods in unmarked graves, far from sacred ground, and Ida has lived her life under false pretenses.
This understandably upsets her, and shakes the foundation of her faith. She determinedly sets out to find someone, anyone, who knew her family. With her hard-drinking pessimist Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) behind the wheel, Ida goes on a road trip to find her parents’ bones. Trzebuchowska taps the sad, lonely stoicism used to great effect by Liv Ullmann in "Persona" and "The Passion of Anna" — her still eyes and thin non-frown barely disguise the turmoil percolating underneath. Aunt Wanda, conversely, is considerably more animated in her sorrow. At a satiating 80 minutes, this lean (but not emaciated) vivisection of faith and identity really digs at the fears, both overt and indiscernible, of post-WWII Poland.
Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal channel art-house aesthetics with ease, and at times "Ida" has the feel of an authentic lost Bergman film. Pawlikowski frames his shots with the tight, tense precision of a still-life photographer: horizontal lines transecting the screen, characters taking up the lower-thirds of shots, vast blank walls acting as canvases against which people and objects are placed, like furniture in a carefully-decorated set. His direction isn't natural, and the immaculate 4:3 shots certainly draw attention to themselves, but, more importantly, Pawlikowski heightens the banal realism of his film, casting the quotidian as a series of tragic art pieces, suffusing it with an air of stillness and the epochal pause of a museum exhibit.
The black and white perception of religious orthodoxy is rendered in bleak gray scale, and the myriad static shots capture a world at once rife with proscribed change and devoid of progress, its people desperately sweeping the past under the rug. The heart-piercing realism is crafted with astute framing and a sort of hyper-realistic use of deep focus, which, in the almost-square 4:3, creates the disquieting sensation of experiencing a caroled, controlled version of everyday life, not unlike Bergman's "God's Silence" trilogy. But unlike those films, which can feel like a passive assault on one's attention span, "Ida" laces the seriousness with wit, and something resembling charm manifests in one-liners alongside surprisingly irreverent humor.
Unlike the careful mise en scene, the jokes do feel natural, the lame efforts of damaged people looking for serenity in fleeting quips. The morbidity is tough but not relentless. Pawlikowski doesn't punish his viewers, he simply challenges them. Take the vow to dedicate your attention to "Ida" and you’ll be rewarded deeply.
Criticwire Grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After winning big at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival, "Ida" seems to be in a good position to garner screen time at indie and art-house theaters. It opens at New York's Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema as well as the Royal Theater in L.A.