It's sometimes extremely unfair to reduce a filmmaker's work to only one or two films out of an entire career, but it's also true that many filmmakers spend their entire working lives striving for the one film that will make people stand up and pay attention. For Britain-based, Polish expatriate Paweł Pawlikowski, the author of a number of well-regarded television documentaries and a few low-key fiction features, the austere, indelible Ida is that film - a thing of stark aesthetic beauty and smart, enveloping thoughtfulness, a little cinephile gem aimed at audiences that prefer to be provoked and challenged rather than just entertain. This is not to say Ida is a slog, because it isn't one, or a masterpiece, because it isn't one either; just an intelligent, affecting miniature of a film that wears its modesty and its honesty on its sleeve.
Set in 1962 Poland, Mr. Pawlikowski's film is many different things at once: a road movie of self-discovery, and of discovery of the other, for two women of different generations; a meditation on the complex sociopolitical history of 20th century Poland; a portrait of personal awakening to the outside world. They're all framed through the omnipresence of the religion in Poland; title character Ida (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to be ordained a nun in the convent she has lived in since she can remember, when her superiors ask her to meet with her sole remaining family before taking her vows.
Her visit with the worldly, and world-weary, aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) turns out to open a veritable "Pandora's box" of history and secrets Ida had no idea about, confronting her resolve and her decision to give herself to God. Wanda, who became an important figure in the Communist nomenklatura but carries a guilt all her own, reveals Ida is in fact the daughter of Jewish parents killed in hiding during WWII, and together they travel the Polish countryside in search of the unmarked graves of the Lebensteins (and, hopefully for Wanda, revealing to her niece the pleasures of the world of man as opposed to that of God).
It would be very easy to look at the path of Ida and Wanda as a sort of "Stations of the Cross" path, were it not for the looseness with which Mr. Pawlikowski follows it and the intelligence with which the director and the two actresses trace out the personal journeys of the two women - between flesh and spirit, abstract and physical, divine and human. That Mr. Pawlikowski shoots it in the classic "boxed" Academy ratio and in a stark, luminous black & white (courtesy of first-time cinematographer Łukasz Żał, who took over from Ryszard Lenczewski early in the shoot), in a leisurely rhythm, will undoubtedly remind many of classic silent movies or some of the early triumphs of sound; the period setting also underlines that sense of a film coming from an entirely different approach to filmmaking.
But it's also notable that these references do not come from any cinephile show-off - merely of a perfect fit between form and function, narrative and style. It may be a slight, slim tale of small lives lost in the great flow of modern history, but it's one very well told and performed; modesty is, after all, a virtue, in film as well as in life.
Poland, Denmark, United Kingdom 2013
Cast Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Joanna Kulig
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; screenwriters Mr. Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz; cinematographers Łukasz Żał and Ryszard Lenczewski (b&w); composer Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen; designers Katarzyna Sobańska and Marcel Sławiński; costumes Aleksandra Staszko; editor Jarosław Kamiński; producers Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol and Ewa Puszczynska; production companies Opus Film and Phoenix Film in co-production with Canal Plus Poland and Phoenix Film Poland, in association with Portobello Pictures
Screened July 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)