HMDT Communications Officer Ben Small reviews Polish drama Ida, the 2015 Academy Award winner for Best foreign language film.
Portrayed in stunning black and white and with an austere, haunting tone, Ida is a road film like no other as it follows two relatives in 1960s post-Holocaust Poland on their journey to discover the fate of their family during World War II.
The eponymous lead (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a quiet and mysterious, yet strikingly beautiful, teenager who has spent her life growing up an orphan named Anna in a remote convent. One week before she is due to take her vows and commit her life to Catholicism, her Mother Superior insists that she contacts her only known relative. Upon meeting her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Anna finds out that her true name is Ida Lebenstein and she is in fact Jewish.
This hard-drinking, lusty Wanda reveals that Ida’s parents were murdered during Poland’s occupation and suggests the two of them head out on an expedition to find their bodies and to discover what happened to them as they strived to survive the final months of the war
The narrative centres on the juxtaposition between the two. Wanda is dismissive of Ida’s devotion to being a ‘Jewish nun’ and wants her to experience life to its fullest, or at least see what it has to offer before she takes her vows. Ida, meanwhile, is protective, reserved and bound by a childlike innocence as she explores the world beyond the walls of her convent, notably attracting the affection of a young alto-sax player Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik).
As they journey around Poland, Wanda and Ida delve deeper into their family’s past and its betrayers and saviours that dictated its fate. The insulating shell that Ida puts up shields her from the realities of a war she experienced only as a baby, but for Wanda, who served as a resistance fighter against the Nazis and later a magistrate for the Soviet courts in Poland, the agonising effect of stirring the skeletons in her closet is much plainer to see.
Ida and Wanda’s journey leads director Pawel Pawlikowski to explore the quieter and more enduring impacts of the Holocaust, as indeed with subsequent genocides - that of the cultural and social annihilation of a society that lingers after the physical destruction of its people.
Ida is perhaps the best representation of this, oblivious of her heritage having been brought up in isolation, but it also persists when the pair climb into a locked and rundown Jewish cemetery left to nature’s devices and visit their pre-war home now occupied by non-Jews who claim ignorance when questioned on its previous occupants.
This insidious nature of genocide is reflected in the film’s protracted pace. Each shot lingers without overstaying its welcome, allowing the audience to savour the still beauty of Pawlikowski’s exquisite cinematography. He regularly opts for long shots and places subjects in the lower third of the frame, leaving plenty of space higher in the frame to burden the characters from above with an overbearingly bleak portrait of a 1960s Poland in the heart of winter.
Pawlikowski, meanwhile, harnesses a hugely expressive and isolating silence through Ida, who does not need words to elucidate responses to her surroundings and those she encounters. The performance by Agata Trzebuchowska in this role is phenomenal, especially when taking into account it is her first film and she had never considered becoming an actor before being discovered by a friend of the director in a chance encounter at a cafe.
Ida is a marvellous exploration of what being Jewish in a post-Holocaust Poland means, but also what it means to be Polish in this society ravaged by the war years. It is a Holocaust film that focuses not on the ghettos and chimney stacks of the crime itself, but the complicity of its collaborators and their attitudes some 15 years later. While Ida must be appreciated within its tragic historical context, it should also be valued in isolation - at its heart it is the tale of a young girl on a journey to explore her faith and identity.
Given the film’s compact 80-minute length, the meandering pace and sparse dialogue could seem counterintuitive, but Pawlikowski maintains a measured, gripping ambiance throughout. Ida lures you in with its striking beauty and minimalist storytelling, keeping you hooked and pondering in what way, if at all, Ida will embrace her true past and define herself as an adult.