Sparse And In Striking Monochrome, 'Ida' Never Waivers
Thanks to its black and white presentation and subject – it's partly about the Holocaust – the new Polish film Ida has been on a slow and gentle release.
It’s the early 1960s in Poland. Snow falls outside a gray building at an isolated convent, while gray light falls on a group of nuns in black habits with white wimples, eating in silence in a room with mostly bare walls. Across the room, four younger women all in gray and soon to become nuns, also eat in silence. Life at this convent is made up of austerity and worship.
A moment later, the mother superior has called one of the young women to her office. She wants her to visit her aunt before she takes her final vows – the aunt has written that she doesn’t want to see Anna, but the mother superior insists that Anna go to the aunt anyway.
The aunt opens her bleak apartment door wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigarette; a man in the bedroom quickly pulls on his clothes. The aunt looks at Anna and says, “So you are a Jewish nun,” and that’s when Anna learns that she was born Jewish during the war and Nazi occupation. Her parents were murdered when she was a baby. For some reason, she’d been spared, which is how she came to be raised Catholic in an orphanage.
Her name from birth is Ida, and the miracle of the film is how director Pawel Pawlikowski manages to pull beauty out of this situation.
Ida is played by Agata Trzebuchowska, a young woman who’s never acted before. In the film, she wears her face completely blank, as if Ida has no experience in the world whatsoever. That is true and the movie tells a story of Ida’s education into the ways of human life.
Pawlikowski shot the film in a sharp, stark black and white; figures look unusually crisp and clear. Nothing gets blurred or softened. Ida never flinches from what she sees and learns.
When she hears jazz for the first time, she loves it. She meets a musician who interests her. She learns that her aunt is a judge, and because the early 1960s was a time of renewed repression from the Communist state, the aunt admits that as an agent of a corrupt government she has sent people to their deaths. Ida also learns about her parents’ murders, and in spite of all of this new experience, Ida’s face never changes. She just takes it all in. Ida’s not callous, and she’s not stupid either. She simply absorbs some of the worst moments in Polish and world history over the past hundred or so years.
Pawlikowski keeps his characters low in the frame, with lots of room above them. So much room, in fact, that a few times the subtitles are placed towards the middle or top of the picture. The framing suggests that above all the horror of the 20th century in Poland, there’s space for comprehending and understanding. The film does not want to settle scores or indict anyone for wrongdoing, although there has been plenty of that. The picture bluntly acknowledges actuality and opens a place for viewers to join in Ida’s experience.
Ida’s accepting face is good for this movie. You find that you read into it; you pour yourself into it. It’s a face that can weather anything, with a depth of serenity that accepts everything yet excuses nothing. That’s a lot for a movie to do, and a lot for an inexperienced actress to carry. Ida’s face seems to bring you through these events.
It’s a tough job for a movie to look into both the Nazi period and the following Communist years without screaming. These were, of course, eras of unspeakable crimes, and the genius of Ida is that it accepts the ideals of transcendence and contemplation that this character may seek or even find in the convent.
Maybe this is what the nuns living at Auschwitz are getting at.