by Tony Dayoub
Director Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida takes a most unusual approach to the legacy of pain inflicted by the Holocaust. Rather than come across as an historical document or an eloquent epic of torment the way Shoah, Schindler's List and countless others have, Ida expresses itself in miniature. Only 80 minutes long and shot in black-and-white in the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Ida is beautiful in its austerity, perfectly representing its central figure, a naive 18-year-old nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who makes a discovery that launches her into a personal inquest into her own identity.
Joining Anna in this journey is her only living relative, the bitter Communist Party judge, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda coldly lays a bombshell on Anna. Though raised in a convent, Anna's real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is a Jew whose parents were murdered during the war. This secret doesn't entirely explain why Wanda never adopted her or why she suddenly wants to join Ida on her quest to find where her parents are buried. But the unsettling, enthralling trip the two women take will... while informing us about their native Poland as well.
In Ida, Pawlikowski offers us what is basically part buddy movie, part road flick. Though this may sound incredibly reductive, it isn't meant to. In stripping Ida down to cinema's simplest genre elements, Pawlikowski trains our eye with a laser focus on Anna/Ida herself, a study of stillness and repression who essentially stands in for the Poland depicted onscreen. Pawlikowski shows us how much Ida is stifled by her religion, often framing her with considerable space at the top of the frame as if to take the invisible but weighty presence of God into account. Ironically, Ida is repeatedly forced to consider her earthier roots by her worldlier aunt, Wanda. Wanda has also turned her back on her past, living a numbing lifestyle filled with alcohol and anonymous sex in order to ignore the loss of her family, ultimately becoming an oppressor not unlike the Germans that once held Poland under their jackbooted heels.
Past the spareness of Ida's black-and-white landscape we get glimpses of Poland's beauty, mostly in the form of its people's appreciation for the freedom offered by the burgeoning jazz movement. Wanda sees a little of that wildness in the repressed Ida, wondering whether she has the same red hair as her sister, Ida's mother, hidden under her habit. What we end up learning is that Ida will soon undergo a rite of passage just as Poland will, as both respectively throw off the yoke of the institutions that hold them down. With Ida, Pawlikowski reminds us that there's as much to be learned from history's influence on individuals as its effect on faceless multitudes.