When a film arrives in cinemas that has been lauded on the international festival circuit as a modern masterpiece it’s tempting to think there’s something wrong with your own personal taste if you don’t fall to your knees to kiss the floor at the end of a screening. I’m not alone, of course: the Guardian newspaper website has recently been running a series in which its writers assassinate several popular cinematic sacred cows, and all involved seem joyously relieved to finally have the public platform on which they can state their disagreement with the masses. Sometimes, it seems, it’s healthy to go against the grain if you feel like you need to, even if there’s just a slight amount of friction as a result.
Ida arrived in the UK a couple of months ago, though it first appeared in festivals a year earlier, to the exact kind of unanimously-positive huffing and puffing that I’m talking about: the kind where reviewers will use the word ‘haunting’ and ‘mesmerising’ with abandon without ever actually being haunted or mesmerised by the film in question (hey, I admit I’m not above a spot of hyperbole myself). Newspaper reviews praised the work of UK-based Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski as well as that of cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Łukasz Żal, and every review I read at the time went wild over the performances of the two lead actors, Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. It’s enough to make you feel like a cultural leper for thinking that the film is merely ‘good’, as opposed to ‘great’.
It’s not that I’m utterly oblivious to the artistry at work here: For starters Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are indeed impressive. The former appears in her first major role here as Anna (though her real name is later revealed to be Ida), a novice nun in 1960s Poland who is sent by her (mother) superior to visit her family before she completes her vows. The latter is utterly convincing as Ida’s only living relative, An Aunt Called Wanda, an imposing, heavy-drinking former judge and prosecutor with ties to the country’s earlier Stalinist regime who has suffered a demotion to the level of magistrate. Both of their performances are often understated and meticulous, with the two actors intelligently and intuitively allowing the other space and time in the majority of their scenes together. I’d like to see more of both of them in the future.
Nor am I ignorant of the difficulties associated with holding an audience’s attention during a slow-paced film, which is something Pawlikowski (who co-wrote the story with the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) manages to do, though admittedly this is the kind of work that will probably only attract a certain type of patient viewer anyway. Ida is a short film – just under an-hour-and-a-half – and it is measured, with occasional quietly-delivered revelations relating to Ida’s Jewish ancestry and the fate of her family during the Second World War affecting the characters and propelling the story forward. The filmmaker also manages to successfully juggle subjects that are essentially very different, analysing the actions of Polish citizens during the war rather than those of the Nazis, for example, while simultaneously exploring the sexual desires and psyches of two women of different ages.
Wanda looks to be in her mid-to-late 40s, and thus has lasting memories of the Holocaust and Nazi collaborators, as well as direct experience of the bitter, acrimonious period that followed. She is understandably cynical, lonely and somewhat disillusioned by the wartime actions of her countrymen, and she is understandably unable to move on from the past, while Ida has a more youthful innocence and a developing hunger for new experiences: this is shown most obviously by the way a young jazz saxophonist named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), himself representing a mildly-exotic brand of western freedom, rejects the advances of the confident, aging aunt and shows greater interest in her young niece. Ida’s first sexual experience with a man is shown as a poetic, sensual experience, while in an early contrasting scene Wanda is unromantically-pictured with a house guest who has clearly outstayed his welcome. Where Wanda is permanently wed to the country’s history through her profession, Ida is part of the first generation of Polish people without specific memories of their own about the mass slaughter that took place in the 1940s. Despite her ties to the Catholic church the young nun is able to make choices of her own free will in the final act, and it’s easy to associate the character with a more optimistic, forward-looking outlook, even though the ability to exercise such freedom has clearly come at a price for Poland and the majority of its people.
While the subject matter is fascinating, watching Ida is like watching a film that has been manufactured by sinister focus groups intent on wowing the festival circuit and the film world’s most earnest critics. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it feels so formal, so rigid, and so calculating in the way it looks that I began to long for a rough edge or two way before the end was in sight. The cinematography, while initially impressing, begins to feel contrived after 20 or 30 minutes or so. Of course all cinematography is contrived, if we’re going to split hairs, but shot after shot here seems too perfectly-constructed or over-thought to me. It may seem churlish to raise such a criticism, or to suggest that a film is ‘too perfect’ in the way it looks, but several framing techniques are used far too much and they tend to feel gimmicky after a while as a result. Subjects are often small and nearly always in the same position of the frame, appearing in the bottom 25% of the screen. With the outdoor scenes in this 6 x 7 aspect ratio – redolent of medium format photography – this means a lot of sky: does the filmmaker want to constantly remind us about the presence of God? I’m not entirely sure; if that was the intention then it’s arguably a very creative move, but if it isn’t then the minimal look, with all that empty space, is selected far too often for my liking for no good reason.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. It’s impressive that two different DoPs were employed and that the second – Żal – managed to carry on the work of his predecessor when promoted from camera operator duties. As detailed by the director in this fascinating article things weren’t clicking with regular collaborator Lenczewski, who left the project early on, and Żal had no previous experience of shooting feature films. For a first-time effort this is certainly striking, and voices of dissent like mine are in the minority – the cinematography has been praised elsewhere, as mentioned earlier.
Ultimately Ida has plenty of substance to back up this flood of style, and after weeks and weeks of watching films primarily about male protagonists its core femininity – albeit cold and distant at times – makes for a welcome change. It’s an involving, interesting story that is well-acted and although I have some reservations about the cinematography I appreciate that it’s distinctive and can certainly see why so many people have been bowled over by it. Despite the heavy subject matter – guilty consciences, suicide, gravedigging, property theft – the film has a lightness of touch that recalls the New Wave films of the decade it is set in, and there is as much tenderness in the story as there is bleakness. The subject matter is confidently addressed by Pawlikowski and Lenkiewicz, and although I don’t quite share the enthusiasm of others I do think it’s very good indeed; a total of 54 awards (to date) suggests that I’m being overly-critical and should be shouting from the rooftops, but I can’t shake the feeling that Ida is almost too meticulously-designed and icily still at times, despite its many qualities.
Directed by: Paweł Pawlikowski
Written by: Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza
Running Time: 82 minutes