One of the great and fundamental consequences of films is that they are documents of a certain time and place. These documents can be shared with all sorts of people and instill a possibility of revelation and inspiration. Indeed, one of the most intuitive and creative ways of understanding another culture and another national sentiment is to watch their films and spot trends in thematic content or aesthetic choices. The recent Polish film “Ida” directed by Pawel Pawlikowski is such a film, a document that presents us a fervent and elegiac diorama of Polish mentality through much of the 20th century. Like what Godfrey Cheshire explains in his review, Ida, a young woman who has lived her life in a convent ready to take her vows, seems to embody an almost medieval temperance. Yet, she befriends her estrange aunt who had made a living as a communist prosecutor as she travels Poland in search of what the film largely focuses on: the ravaging of Poland during World War II. The totality of this film loosely reflects unease similar to Czeslaw Milosz and “The Captive Mind.”
Ida has found out that she is Jewish and that her parents were killed during World War II. Ida and her aunt, Wanda, embark on a dissonant road trip to find the remains of her parents. What is revealed is a frightening visualization of Poland’s obfuscated position during that war and the reverberations post-war that prompted Poland to flee and give into communism. Ida’s revelations are surprising and disturbing; sometimes the most potent atrocities do not come from the wartime enemy, but a group of people who crack under writhing fear. The revelation effects both Ida and Wanda, but they respond in vastly different manners. This is reasonable since they start at almost opposite spectrums (or maybe not?) of social perspective.
Ida is played by Agata Trzebokowska with both discipline and distance and the trials and tribulations she goes through definitively puts into perspective her strength in the Catholic faith. While her performance is effortless and her mannerisms offer much for us to think about, there are times where I became almost uninterested in her by the way the camera lingered on her expressionless face. It was ever so apparent in the final scene that was all too familiar with me and left me with only an echo of the feelings and thoughts I built up beforehand. Maybe it was suppose to evoke such emptiness, but there were already numerous scenes that seem to repetitively focus on Ida’s almost banal gaze such that it was almost hard to sympathize with her actions, which was the only measurement to her thoughts and feelings save for one scene of a chuckling and one scene with a tear.
But there is much to celebrate in this film. Agata Kulesza plays Wanda in a ruggedly depressed role but her quick retorts and damaged outlook on reality provide aching amusement and devastating insight on a country worn down by sociopolitical instability. The motif of jazz, western music, is a lovely addition to the whole historical thematic construction and a form of a temptation for Ida. Lastly, the photography of the film is astounding with a dreamlike quality meshed with a surreal approach. Filmed in the antiquated ratio of 1.37:1, human faces and bodies seem to be closed in and pressed into the various architecture. Moreover, there are many shots of conversations (or, two shots) where the two characters are placed in the lower third of the frame, giving free reign for the architecture to dominate or sometimes oppress the characters. These shots almost evoke a derivative form of Carl Dreyer’s camera work in the silent classic, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” with less abstraction and more nihilism. There is one shot that has Ida waiting outside an apartment complex in an alleyway squeezed in by another building opposite. The shot places her in the right third of the frame and the viewer can peer down the alley somewhat; the curvature of the buildings as it shapes the alley are emphasized. Soft lighting is employed as it hugs the tops of the building. It is a most beautiful shot and may express a delicacy to Poland and to Ida as well.
“Ida” is a necessary watch to learn about Poland, not just the social and political history and mentality, but also the geography and landscapes of the places and people that inhabit the country. With chilling performances and imagery that tantalizes, one only wishes that the final scene was less distant but that may have been the point.