I’m crushing a bit here.
There is hubris, and then there is having an entire film hinge on the performance of a complete neophyte—an apparently reluctant one at that. But there you are, the title character present in almost every frame of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.
Set in the Stalinist Poland of 1961, Ida is the story of a young nun who is coerced by her Mother Superior into confronting her family’s complicated past. Rigorously composed and shot in black and white, the film is somehow also starkly intimate.
Ida is a beautiful film, with angular compositions and unconventional framing that manages to be both unsettling and serene. Much of the first act, which is spent in and around the austere silence of the convent, is largely occupied with architectural spaces and exquisitely lit compositions. Humans are often small, almost insignificant elements, sometimes given just the lower third of the frame to occupy.
This is perhaps the most jarringly exquisite film I have ever seen. The complexity and power of each image tends to feel overwhelming initially. It is like viewing an endless series of beautifully composed photos and it threatens to overshadow the rather slender narrative.
What prevents the film from being buried by the stark power of its own images and transforms it into a story that is compelling, as well as tragic, is your interaction with the last surviving member of your long lost family—your aunt. She is a character, in the absolute best sense of that word, played ferociously by Agata Kulesza. A ruthless Communist apparatchik of unquestioned vigor as well as a hard-drinking atheist possessed of none of the restraint that seems to exude from you like a subtle perfume, she is also your guide into the labyrinth that is your family history.
In the second act, Ida becomes this poignant, and sometimes bleakly funny, road movie.
Still perfectly composed and allowing for each moment to play out with remarkable patience, it transforms into a gritty, neo-realist trip into rural, post-war Poland. Both women have a particular gravitational pull that affects each other as well as those around them.
Kulesza gives an extraordinary performance—at turns bombastic and then almost witheringly despondent—but it is counterbalanced by your intuitive stillness and precocious dignity. These are two of the most arresting characters I have experienced this last year and despite the short run time (80 minutes), I feel like I know something important about each of these women by the end of the film.
While Ida evokes comparison to other works (Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as just one example), it is entirely its own thing, and that is partially owing to your performance. You are both enigmatic and completely transparent, and every moment the camera spends on you, it is still never enough.
Ida is also another example of the quiet renaissance that we are almost surreptitiously experiencing these days. Perhaps somewhat hidden by the shadow of the summer tent poles and the cries of doom and gloom, diverse filmmakers like JC Chandor and Pawlikowski, Dan Gilroy and The Drop's Michael R. Roskam are all creating superb, mid-budget films that are head and shoulders above most of the dreck of the last fifteen or twenty years. Ida is an entirely uncontroversial nominee for an Academy Award, and these days that is saying something indeed.
Finally, it seems like Pawlikowski was indeed correct when he insisted on your participation.