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This review is about the acclaimed Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s newest film Ida (2013)It was screened at TIFF 2013, and since then, at numerous other film festivals. Slowly, it has arrived at the big screens in our cities recently. The following post discusses crucial thematic elements. Therefore, spoiler warning.

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What forms one’s identity? Is it nationality? Race and ethnicity? Or something that transcends these boundaries? And, does one have a choice?

IDA

At the beginning, Anna’s (Agata Trzebuchowska) Catholicism is chosen for her. Raised in a Polish convent as an orphan, Anna knows no other kind of life. As an 18 year-old novitiate on the verge of taking her vow to become a nun, her Mother Superior tells her she should meet her closest relative. The one living relative she has is her mother’s sister, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).

Wanda is a hard-drinking, life-weary and tormented soul. Having lived through the horror of the second world war, she is confronted by yet another formidable front in post-war Poland, Soviet Communism. As a state prosecutor and later a judge, Wanda survived by compromising with the oppressive regime. She rises to a respectable position while sending many to their doom.

Poland in the 1960’s saw the beginning of wavering in hardline communism, a loosening up in society. Wanda has now become disillusioned and cynical, immersing in alcohol and one-night stands. With Anna appearing at her doorstep, she has to confront with not only a family’s dreadful past but her own existential present. Her licentious lifestyle is a sharp contrast to Anna’s spiritual devotion. A foil of the sacred and the profane, but not in a dogmatic frame. We see the two learning to appreciate and understand each other in a poignant way.

The sacred and the profane

For Anna, coming out of the convent does not mean only an eye-opener of the real world. From her aunt, she learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is a Jew. Her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She was kept safe in the shelter of the Catholic nuns. Her lineage concealed. Now Anna/Ida has to face with a seemingly incompatible identity, as her aunt bluntly puts it, ‘a Jewish nun’.

Aunt and niece go on a road trip to seek out the graves of Ida’s parents and eventually discover more about their deaths. They begin to know each other in a deeper way. The knowledge and the experience they have with each other may be life affirming for Ida; unfortunately for Wanda, they lead to despair.

While on the road, Wanda picks up a hitch-hiker, a young jazz musician, saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). He opens up yet another window for Anna, that of jazz, Coltrane, and all the rest.

The 80-minute, visually inspiring film is shot in aesthetically stunning black and white cinematography, 1.37:1 Academy Ratio with a square frame; the medium is the message. Austere, minimal, suggestive of harsh, bygone days, and with human characters often in the bottom of the frame, small and insignificant compared to the vast landscape. What is human in the whole scheme of things? How does one define oneself?

Small characters against large landscape

The cinematography reminds me of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The young priest comes into his first parish, dwarfed and intimidated by the burden of his task, the spiritual warfare for which he is unprepared:

Walking through the woods

Like Bresson, Pawlikowski uses a non-actor for a major role. Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. She has never acted before. Pawlikowski found her in a coffee shop. Her portrayal of Anna/Ida is hauntingly authentic. Her face is pristine, yet her gaze is wise beyond her look. Her aloof expression offers an unspoken evaluation of the world she sees, both in and out of the convent’s walls.

After Wanda’s tragic death, Ida tries on her dresses, her high heels, smokes her cigarette and imagines another life. In this elegant attire she dances with the Jazz musician Lis. She listens to him play Coltrane on his sax. A whole new world awaits her if she chooses. But it only entices for a short while. Ida yearns for something deeper, more meaningful. “Then what?” she asks Lis several times in response to his offer of coming along with him.

Three characters, three choices. Wanda chooses the ultimate escape as she makes a suicidal jump out her window, with her Mozart as a send-off.

The young musician Lis chooses jazz and whatever that path might take him. Despite his desire to have Ida come along with him, he does not, or maybe, cannot, answer her ‘Then what?’ questions.

Ida chooses the Transcendent over the secular, not that she judges the world, but that she yearns for meaning in the spiritual. It is not so much about choosing Catholicism over her Jewish lineage, but that she has made her own decision in being who she is. Ida’s choice is one that surpasses arbitrary, man-made boundaries of race and ethnicity, or the appeal of materials and pleasures; she chooses to devote to her Christ who had sacrificed all.

An image from the beginning of the film vividly comes back to my mind. Anna and three others carrying the Christ statue on their shoulders like a cross:

Carrying Christ

In the final shot we see Ida back in her habit attire. The moving camera captures a resolved and almost rejuvenated face, walking briskly with her little suitcase in hand, heading back to the convent. This place is now a personal choice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Ida wins The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.

Feb. 21, 2015: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Feb. 8, 2015: Wins BAFTA Best Film not in the English Language

Jan. 15, 2015: 2 Oscar noms, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography

Dec. 11: Golden Globe nom for Best Foreign Language Film

Dec. 7: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film and Agata Kulesza Best Supporting Actress at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle

Other posts you might like:

Nebraska: Colour Is Superfluous

Diary of a Country Priest: An Easter Meditation

Diary Of A Country Priest: Film Adaptation

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