At first glance, “Ida” is the summation of a movie I was created on this earth to hate. It’s a period movie shot in black and white*, it’s about a nun, and it features a road trip and a saxophone player. I almost choked myself out in a rage just typing that sentence. Nonetheless, “Ida” held me captive, and my opinion of it has only risen in the days since. (“Ida” wasn’t shot in black and white. It was shot in color digitally and converted to black and white using color grading software. This is the case for almost everything released in black and white in the last decade at least. I understand and appreciate the reasons for shooting this way, but the decision to make a black and white movie feels arch and ornamental in a way that earlier directors choosing to shoot on black and white film stock did not. While the black and white grading in “Ida” is of the highest quality, the images bear the unmistakable crispness and resolution of the digital era.)
Religion is like a loaded gun. You don’t show it unless you’re going to use it. The gun is going to go off — the only question is will it end well or not. And when a character is defined by her religious devotion, you can be that her faith is going to blow up too. The only question is will it end well or not. When we meet Ida in Poland in 1962, she a week from taking her vows to become a nun. She visits her Aunt Wanda — home she’s never met before — and learns she is actually a Jew. This kind of plot wallop usually bores the hell out of me, because it means for the next 90 minutes, I’m going to be subjected to endless versions of “who am I really?’
First, “Ida” is only 80 minutes long, and second, while it feels almost like a folk tale at times, the film is very aware of itself. That awareness manifests itself in what “Ida” doesn’t do : it doesn’t ask questions like “who am I?” and it certainly offers no answers. It is more of a reflection on the limits of guilt and anger and acceptance. The film is made with long, still takes where the camera seems to resists moving and instead settles itself into the scene at hand. Dramatic story points are treated almost as an afterthought, but suspense and desire build as the camera remains on Ida and/or on Wanda longer than we are used to, longer than we expect, and the tension continues to build when they leave the frame : we see only nervous fingers sticking out of winter coats as relics of grief and tragedy are pulled from the ground ; later, in the most memorable scene of the film, Wanda puts on some music on the phonograph and movies in and out of frame with a frantic energy . She returns with so much verve that when she leaves the frame the last time, so casually and terribly, we are completely emptied. It’s this self-imposed set of boundaries, structurally and thematically, that allows “Ida” to become truly cinematic.
And that’s where the two Agatas come in. Agata Kulesza plays Wanda perfectly. Others have said that the film should be titled “Wanda” because she is the more fully drawn and complex of two characters. When she first invites Ida into her kitchen and asks her what the nuns told Ida about her, she’s relieved when Ida tells her that the nuns didn’t say anything. Wanda is disheveled, wearing a night gown and smoking a cigarette, and she has a lover who is getting dressed to leave, so it’s easy to imagine, standing in for Ida, that Wanda is a prostitute. That she is a once respected judge who turns to drinking and sex to stave off the shame of her faded career is only one surprise about Wanda that makes her a fascinating character and the perfect guide for Ida through the landscape of Poland and of sin.
Agata Trzebuchowska is the 23 year old star of the film. She has never acted before the director Paweł Pawlikowski discovered her in a café, but she was the perfect choice for the old of Ida. Wrapped up in her gray habit for most of the film, Ida’s expressionless face must tell a story without being a blank slate. Like everything else in this film, what’s beautiful about Ida comes from our inability to know if her calm expression is a stasis of opposites that cancel each other out, a balanced unity of her many contradictions, or just a bullshit mask that she’s dying to take off. And Trzebuchowska is so great at carrying all these possibilities in her stunning, lovely face and in her performance that it isn’t until after the film ends that we realize the answer is D all of the above. The final, handheld, shaky tracking shot of Ida walking in the middle of a dirt road, her eyes full of everything — an unknown future, a past either reconciled or roiling, a heart either full or broken — while the headlights of passing cars throw dull halos across her face, is the kind of thing I was put on this earth to love.