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All words: Max Bentovim

Ida is a quiet movie about disquieting things. At times the film is almost silent, but much like the convent life it portrays, the absence of most sound often signifies the presence of something larger, something ineffable, something wordlessly below the surface.

Ida is about Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a convent-raised orphan in postwar Poland preparing to take her vows who instead is launched by her Mother Superior into an odyssey of dark discovery. She is sent to her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a powerful official in the Communist state, who immediately informs her that she is, in fact, Ida, the child of Jews who were among the millions to meet a terrible fate under German occupation. The revelation initiates a journey for both of them, both literal (to uncover the final fate and resting place of Anna/Ida’s parents) and spiritual. In an odd sort of way, the film is an inverted, distaff echo of Dylan Kidd’s unheralded masterpiece Roger Dodger. Where that decidedly-male story of an adolescent and his uncle on a Dantean pilgrimage, rich with allegory, is first-and-foremost visceral and carnal, loud and bright, and only more obliquely about family and history, Ida focuses squarely on the latter, mediating the physical world through a reserved austerity. As often as not we see nothing of our protagonists but their faces, pushed oppressively into the corner of the screen almost paradoxically by open skies and large ceilings.

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Ida is canny and deft in weaving together a panoply of weighty themes that would overwhelm most films. The film is about the Holocaust, of course, and Poland’s complicity in the extermination of its Jews; it’s also about historical memory, and how people and societies move on (for better or for worse) with an unquenchable darkness in their past. It’s a film about identify, about the adoption of roles and the wearing of costumes to accommodate a society that has no place for you. It’s a film about Communist rule, and how, in the words of Tony Judt, “history itself ground slowly to a halt,” settling into “a winter of inertia and resignation.” It’s a film about the implicit tension between political and social power, a tension that places its two protagonists at opposite poles, one a blunt and reckless agent of the state, the other a guileless avatar of the church (or at least perceived as such), able to win entry and support simply by inhabiting a habit. It’s a film about gender in society, specifically one with a wide gap between the institutional egalitarianism enforced from a distant but omnipotent imperial capital and the lived experience of a society still deeply suspicious of women with real power. And it’s a film particular to a time and place, very specifically about a Poland that was forced to grapple with all of these in a society where all formal and accessible fora for discussion and debate were either dismantled or dominated by repressive forces, leaving behind a country defined by what was unsaid and undone.

If I am hesitant to say Ida is a great movie, interpret my reticence as praise. Its complex and intertwined narratives about social and religious power in a tortured crossroads of European culture, history and politics are given voice through action, not speeches; its metaphors and symbols (most poignantly a Jewish cemetery, abandoned and overgrown) are allowed to breathe organically by simply being. As often as not, Ida expresses layers of meaning simply by showing us things from a distance, with key action in the deep-focus background and deceptively banal activity in the foreground, empowering and encouraging the audience to build meaning in the open spaces it favors. And its characters, especially its two protagonists, who could easily have slid into obvious allegorical ciphers, are infused with vitality by superlative performances, one fire masking ice, the other ice masking fire.

Ida has no colors, but obliquely refers to them in discussing Anna’s hair and her aunt’s choice of dress. Ida has no non-diegetic music, but that attunes us more strongly to the music the characters themselves experience at moments of personal crisis. Ida’s camera never moves, which highlights movement within the frame. Key events, both present and past, happen between shots, which makes us wonder much more about why we are seeing what we are seeing, and why we’re seeing it from the often-peculiar angle we are. At times it’s almost shot like a horror movie, a grimly appropriate choice given that it’s a film very much about horror – not the kind that slaughters irresponsible teens, but the kind that haunts people and societies long after bodies and memories are buried.

Ida is definitely a kind of transcendentalist film, utilizing the “sparse means” Paul Schrader identified as a signal of the genre as well as the transition from the quotidian to the divergent to the transcendently static that defines the narrative structure of the form. It also owes much to many of the great European masters of the era it depicts, especially Bergman, Bresson, and Dreyer. Far from formulaic or derivative, though, it does the best kind of borrowing, leveraging aspects of past achievements into a film with a unique voice and an unsettling emotion ambiguity particular to the cultural moments it addresses – two pasts as well as the present. In its final shot, very consciously casting aside all its self-imposed formal rules, Ida raises as many questions as it answers, leaving us to wonder whether the anti-resolution of transcendence that is its natural ending point is even possible – as much a riposte to its antecedents as a tribute.

Ida is an exceptional accomplishment, especially for its director, Paweł Pawlikowski, and its two fantastic leads. If I am hesitant to say Ida is a great movie, interpret my reticence as praise. Greatness is hard to come by, and more often than not identifiable only after time has eroded the more plentiful but less durable artifacts of culture that clog our vision. This I can say with certainty, though – Ida is a compelling, intelligent movie, one whose ideas and images are impossible to dismiss. In the last analysis Anna’s unwavering gaze is the perfect synecdoche for both Ida and its subject, lingering long after you’ve looked away.