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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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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Ida (2014)
US/Can release: May 02 2014
UK/Ire release: Sep 26 2014

MPAA: rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking
BBFC: rated 12A (suicide scene)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Maria Niku

    I left the theater stunned, when I saw this film recently. I found it above all a tremendously beautiful film and, as a photographer, noted the wonderful use of (natural) light: how it played on faces, on surfaces, even a detail as small as a button on a blouse.

  • Ken B

    There were many “Ida”s in German occupied Poland who were orphaned or abandoned, most during the middle of the war when the ghettos were being liquidated. Ewa Kurek’s Your life is worth mine, How Polish nuns saved hundreds of Jewish children in German-occupied Poland, 1939-1945 is based on interviews with such survivors, now living on three continents. A must read to understand the film. During 1942-43, the genocide reached its brutal pitch.
    Hence, this is “not evasive intrigue” but unknown history, the fallout of the German Nazi war crimes in occupied Poland left until 1989 behind the iron curtain, along with the nation, abandoned by western “allies” to appease Stalin. Winning the war was the goal.

  • John D

    Maryann Johanson, since all I could think of while watching Ida was the following song and video… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c-RbGZBnBI
    I then decided to play IDA without volume with this track running in the background. Crazy!

  • Uglee Sweater

    “Ida movie review: alas poor Poland?”

    What are you implying with your snarky title?

  • It’s not meant to be snarky. It’s meant to wonder whether the film is a metaphor for a nation, or not.

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