Ida is a film that posits fundamental questions while seeking their answers prudently. The movie synthesised transformation schematics with a mystical tale of identity and confidence; this combination secured its triumph at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival.
From a very early age, the title characterIda (Agata Trzebuchowska) lived in a monastery. Upon deciding to become a sister of mercy, she must first make the acquaintance of her only living relative before taking her vows. This prerequisite leads to the postponement of her decision, as the result of the clash of personalities that ensues after meeting her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).
The elder woman had been a communist court judge who, in the days of Stalin, brashly participated in the political processes. As they sit at a table, the cynical middle-aged woman and the young, naive girl have a conversation, which reveals that Ida is a Jew whose parents were killed during the war. She escaped with the help of a local priest and so began her life with the nuns. The two women decide to find the places of their buried loved ones, in an attempt to illuminate more of their family’s past.
Pawlikowski on Polish History
During the festival in Gdynia, speculations were that Paweł Pawlikowski’s film was a response to Władysław Pasikowski’s recent, controversial Pokłosie (Aftermath). But this correlation proves an ineffectual comparison. While Pasikowski projected a thriller onto the silver screen, Pawlikowski's structure tells a different sort of tale.
In contrast to Aftermath, Ida is not a movie about the Holocaust, the culpability of the Polish people, or the Stalinist terror that marked post-war Polish history. These themes are present and extremely important, but they serve as a backdrop to the story that centres on the meeting of two very different personalities. The real focus of film is on choosing your own way of life and realising and verifying your identity.
No one is excluded and no wounds are clawed in Pawlikowski’s tale of a young woman who has to ask the question of who she is. Ida's meeting a handsome young saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) initiates an avalanche of doubt that leads her to ponder what life outside of the monastery would be like. The director constructs these questions without any pomp, as if in passing. Ida doesn’t take care to maintain revealed truths in any particular state, nor does it have scenes that depend on their ability to evoke mystical states. The slow pace and long, static shots are woven into the plot, which takes audiences along a path where there’s no boredom or shallow fiction.
The World in Black and White
When meeting with the producer, Pawlikowski said he wanted to shoot the story in black and white and use the antiquated aspect ratio 4:3 in filming. The response was: "Paul, you are no longer a student, don't be silly".
The choices for the film’s format was neither hoax nor coincidence. Łukasz Żal’s camera work received the award for Best Cinematography in Gdynia. His narrow screens don’t allow for wide panoramas. Instead, what is presented are concentrated cadres where every element is significant.
Following the first screening of Ida, the cast half-jokingly stated that Pawlikowski directed even the chicken that appears in the third scene. This statement is revealing of the intricate perfection of the director’s work, yet his dedication didn’t translate into a stifling atmosphere. On the contrary, the minute details bind to one another to light up the screen with a wonderfully authentic world. The natural rhythm of the film is not a result of indifference but of absolute professionalism.
The cinematography in Ida is only one example of the great talent of Łukasz Żal. As one of Poland’s talented young cinematographers, he was initially supposed to assist Ryszard Lenczewski. But when due to illness Pawilikowski’s longtime collaborator stepped down, the whole project was given to Żal.
Stylised shots and artistic direction pay tribute to the great masters of cinema. Ida includes elements used by Jerzy Wójcik in his work on Popiół i diament / Ashes and Diamonds and Matka Joanna od Aniołów / Mother Joan of the Angels. However, spotting these references, quotations and visual bows is left as a test for erudite viewers. Ida includes imagery borrowed from Janusz Morgenstern’s Do widzenia, do jutra / Goodbye, Until Tomorrow, styles gleaned from Nouvelle Vague and from the films of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Żal brings life to the atmosphere of the 1960s and the stunning visuals are helped along by the popular, beautiful song sung by Joanna Kulig, accompanied by David Ogrodnik on saxophone.
Agata Kulesza’s Award-Winning Role
The director’s struggle to find an ideal candidate for his lead role lasted months. After another failed casting attempt, he returned to Paris and received a phone call from Małgośka Szumowska. She told him that there was a girl with a cool look sitting in front of a cafe and that she would take a photo of her with her phone and send it to him. In a stroke of serendipity, Pawlikowski had found his leading lady: Agata Trzebuchowska. As co-star Agata Kulesza observes,
Trzebuchowska’s interpretation of Ida is a character full of curiosity and inner peace that allows her to accept her choices and twists of fate. In the film she says very little. Not only because the director builds the story visually, sparingly using dialogue to address issues; but also because the other actress is stealing a bit of the film for herself.
Kulesza was cast in the role of Krwawa Wanda, or Bloody Wanda, a proponent of Stalinism who had been been thrown to the party’s fringes. The inspiration for the character came from a meeting between the director and Teresa Wolińska. She was a prosecutor during the Stalinist period who lived in England, but when she met Pawlikowski, she left an impression of charm and elegance. After uncovering the details of her history, the director decided to explore the seemingly irreconcilable faces this women embodied.
Dualism characterises the role played by Kulesza; she is cynical and cold, yet human. Gradually she takes off her mask and reveals her more sensitive side. The acting is done with a craftsmanship that manages to express all the pain and tragedy of the character in a single glance. She creates drama in the shadow cast by Ida. It's no wonder the judges of the Gdynia Film Festival awarded Kulesza best-actress honors for her performance.
Pawlikowski’s new film was the big winner at Gdynia, receiving the Golden Lion and recognised for cinematography, lead female role and set design. The director of My Summer of Love has remained out of Polish cinema for a long while. The secrecy surrounding his return has been shattered by this incredibly intense, impressively perfect formula of a movie.
Ida was released in Polish cinemas in the last quarter of 2013. In 2015, it has won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
- Ida: Denmark, Poland, United Kingdom, 2013, written and directed by: Paweł Pawlikowski, directory of photography: Łukasz Żal, Ryszard Lenczewski, editor: Katarzyna Sobańska, Marcel Sławiński, music: Kristian Eidnes Andersen, set design: Jarosław Kamiński. Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, David Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Joanna Kulig, Adam Szyszkowski.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 18/09/2013
Translation: SMG 19/09/2013