When done well, the sparest of films can be almost mesmerizing. Moments of stasis and solitude command attention, pulling in the audience like some meditative medium. When done exceptionally well, a tonally quiet film offers substance that’s every bit equal to its style – Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida does just that, standing as a nearly flawless work of cinematic art. The Polish director and co-writer presents his 80-minute study of identity with authentic humility and masterful visual composition. It’s as if each shot were intended to be a gallery-quality photograph (to put it in social media parlance, each could be featured within the “Perfect Shots” Twitter feed). Pawlikowski and his cinematographers (one is Margaret DP, Ryszard Lenczewski) tell the story of a young nun using crisp, finely tuned black-and-white film, illustrating the simple, harsh realities of life, accented by softer rays of hope. The nun is Ida, a young woman at a 1960s Polish convent whose life changes when she meets her aunt just before preparing to take her vows. In conversations of few words, Ida learns that she was born to a Jewish family and given away to the sisterhood during the Nazi occupation. It’s understood that Ida’s family was killed, but no details had survived. Ida and her aunt Wanda decide to unravel the mystery, traveling to small villages to uncover how the family was murdered and where the bodies were buried. Secrets run deep in newly socialist Poland but, as a once-feared prosecutor, Wanda has an intimidating way of making men talk. The two leads – Wanda is played by Agata Kulesza, Ida by startling newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska – come to their trip from very different motivations. Ida sees their quest almost as a tight-lipped obligation, barely cracking a line of emotion. Wanda has clearly been haunted by the past, and may have been waiting a long time to exorcise her demons. Pawlikowski never lets us forget that the environment around Wanda and Ida looms larger than them, flushing each actress against the border of the frame and devoting his screen space to high ceilings, church icons, or intricate stairwells. Wanda and Ida are practically trapped within their world – it either hovers above them or pushes them to the side. The camera stays still and the actors rarely move; if they do, it’s always with choreographed purpose and usually not outside of the frame. Many single shots combine visual complexity and simplicity, a microcosm of Ida herself. It’s 20 years after the war, yet she still leads a sheltered life of servitude she would never have known or contemplated if not for the Nazis. Wanda asks if Ida has ever entertained sinful thoughts. She says she has, but not about carnal love. “Too bad,” retorts Wanda. Ida gets a small glimpse of worldly pleasures in the guise of a handsome young jazz musician who takes an instant liking to Ida. Pawlikowski carefully sets up the man’s presence as a source of freedom, jazz itself an expression of sultry, impromptu energy. (Wanda even sees the instrument as a sort of aphrodisiac, describing it as “male” and “sensual.”) A few shots of Ida and her new friend are full of intricate patterns and it’s easy to imagine their brains feeling that way, too. While many of Pawlikowski’s shots have a gorgeous breathlessness, so does the stunning Trzebuchowska. Her elegant cheeks and dimpled chin combine the features of a girl and a woman, and for a non-professional (she was discovered in a Warsaw café), she inherently understands how to play small movements on screen. Pawlikowski takes advantage of her dark eyes with the monochromatic photography, giving Ida a strange, otherworldly presence – she’s as hypnotic as the movie is. When the sax player confesses to her, “You don’t realize the effect you have,” it’s easy to get what he means.
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