It is rare nowadays to see a contemporary feature film which is entirely devoid of colour. Whilethere has been a renewed interest in filming in monochrome in recent years, including Frances Ha (2012), The Artist (2011), and Tim Burton’s laborious remake of his 1984 short Frankenweenie (2012), the aesthetic is used largely as pastiche, referring back to an earlier film, period, or style. With Ida, however, Pawel Pawlikowski has crafted a visually stunning piece of filmmaking which makes the aesthetic its own.
Austere in its monochromatic depiction of 1960s Poland, Ida may at first seem a daunting viewing prospect; a foreign language film from Europe which follows a young nun as she searches for her Jewish roots in a country still reeling in the aftermath of WW2. One thinks: a gruelling three hour epic like Andrei Tarkovky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) or a harrowing charting of the effects of war on a child in the spirit of Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). However, clocking in at a surprisingly succinct 80 minutes, Ida is in fact a remarkably economic film.
As Pawlikowski’s filmography makes evident, the director’s interests lie in the relationships and interactions between people separated by gender, class, and nationality, a theme which is inherently present in his latest film. Being due to take her vows as a Catholic nun, Anna (Ida, played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is summoned before her Mother Superior who reveals that Anna is not, as she thought, entirely bereft of living relatives; she has an aunt. The Mother Superior commands Ida to visit her aunt before she takes her vows, in order to ensure that a life in the convent is indeed what she wants. Ida, as instructed, travels to meet her aunt, a jaded war prosecutor dubbed “Red” Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who reveals her niece’s Jewish roots. The revelation initiates the body of the narrative as the pair begin a small road trip to uncover the truth about what happened to their family during the war.
Shot in a minimalist fashion which belies Pawlikowski’s roots in documentary filmmaking, Ida is a film which is composed almost entirely of static shots, long takes, and curiously framed medium-close ups. Though these instances seem to badly frame the actors on screen, the smallest movement of the head leading to parts of the face to be obscured off-screen, they in fact allow the spaces around the body to dominate the shot, and so are indicative of the way in which the spaces and history associated with said spaces weigh heavily on the minds of the film’s characters. There is little in the way of music within the film; one lone instance stands out in the way in which non-diegetic, silence and ambient noise is allowed to combine with the cold and empty surroundings to emphasise the cold absence left by the extermination of the Polish-Jews.
Though Trzebuchowska puts in a solid performance as the meek and unassuming Ida, Kulesza’s portrayal of Wanda is a fantastic blend of bitter anger and maternal instinct. The juxtaposition of the apparently destructive Wanda, with her penchant for smoking, drinking, and casual sex, with her innocent niece may seem a little formulaic, but it is latter’s time spent with her aunt which breathes life into Ida. The cynical judge, irreversibly marked by the war through both her own experiences and her job, is nevertheless the catalyst which prompts Ida to do what she herself never could: confront the past and overcome it.
With Ida, Palikowski has crafted a drama devoid of sentiment, a piece of monochromatic visual poetry in which words say little but silence and empty spaces speak volumes.