Combustible Celluloid
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With: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Joanna Kulig
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking
Language: Polish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 83
Date: 05/02/2014

Ida (2014)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Nun of the Above

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first learned of Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski in 2001 when I saw his Last Resort as part of the Shooting Gallery series. I missed his next movie, My Summer of Love, released three years later. Eight years later, I caught his next one, The Woman in the Fifth, on DVD. And now here is Ida. From what we can tell, Pawlikowski makes movies that are less than 90 minutes, when possible, and yet they unfold slowly, building atmosphere. He's an interesting director, but based on what I hd seen, I never would have expected anything as great as Ida on the horizon. From its first few frames, it's clear that this is an incredible movie, truly mesmerizing. I think it's a near-masterpiece, at least.

The movie tells the story of Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised in a convent, and is a week away from taking her vows as a nun. It's sometime in the 1960s, in Poland. The mother superior tells her that she has an aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), and that Ida should visit with her before making her final decision. Wanda is the opposite of a nun. She's a former judge who sleeps around, and drinks and smokes too much. (When Ida first arrives at Wanda's apartment, Wanda kicks out her latest lover.) Wanda informs Ida that she's Jewish and that her parents were killed during the Holocaust, but that the location of their bodies is unknown. They go on a road trip to a farmhouse where the parents were known to have been hidden, to see if they can learn anything. Along the way, they pick up a handsome young jazz saxophone player, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), who becomes attracted to Ida.

Pawlikowski shoots in bleak black-and-white, and while my readers know how much I love this format (I chose four black-and-white films as among the twenty best of 2013), there's more to Ida than just that. Pawlikowski's framing is always quite powerful, and very striking. Characters are often shunted to the lower regions of the frame, or, in longer shots, shoved off to one side, perhaps opporessed by their environments. His cutting, too, is frequently abrupt. The effect is almost like a deadpan comedy, except that there are few laughs to be had in Ida. It's almost as if Pawlikowski refuses to gaze directly at the story, blinking and looking away.

The story is a couple of decades removed from the horrors of the war; many of the survivors are still alive, and memories still smart, although perhaps not as sharply as they once did. The most tragic moments in the movie also have this remove; the damage was done long before we got here, though it's no less tragic in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps most tragic is the question: where do we go from here, now that we know the horrible truth? Wanda and Ida both choose their paths: Wanda chooses perhaps the easiest, while the film ends with Ida, having a slightly more complex path to walk.

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