Ida movie review: alas poor Poland?

Ida green light

A beautiful film, and a mysterious one. I don’t quite know what to make of it, but I have been seduced by its evasive intrigue.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Ida is a beautiful film, and a mysterious one. Two viewings have not given me the first inkling of what to make of it, except to realize that I have been seduced by its evasive intrigue.

Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (who wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz) returns to his native Poland for the first time onscreen with a story of two women: 20ish orphan Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised by nuns and is about to take vows herself, and her aunt, 40s-ish Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her only living relative whom the Mother Superior insists Ida meet before making her lifelong commitment to the order. It is the early 1960s, and the film looks as if it could have been made then, not only thanks to its black-and-white cinematography and old-fashioned square aspect ratio but its doleful evocation of life under the deprivations of Communism. Downturned faces and the big empty spaces of a rundown farmhouse, a desolate hotel, a sparse nunnery are all accentuated by Pawlikowski (The Woman in the Fifth, Last Resort) and cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s choice to shoot so much of their film with the actors and the action crammed into the bottom the frame, leaving lots of empty air above them. Is this to underscore the despair already tangible in every scene? Is it God looking down on it all? A satisfying explanation remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As Ida and Wanda visit their family’s ancestral village, the one they were driven from during World War II, Ida makes surprising discoveries about herself that her sheltered upbringing in the nunnery gave no hint of. And Wanda, whose life of relative privilege as a civic judge and member of the Party has brought power but no joy, gets a temporary reprieve from her loneliness. It is a harsh world here, the horrors of the war still fresh in the minds and memories of too many people and the restrictions of Communism too palpably present. Happiness sparks only occasionally and briefly, but the freedom we know is to come for Poland in the future is not even hinted at. Maybe that’s what Ida’s fate at the end of the film is suggesting? Is Ida a metaphor for Poland? Or is she just a young woman making a choice her small world has not truly equipped her to make?

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Ida for its representation of girls and women.

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