Directed By: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Trivia: Film debut of Agata Trzebuchowska, a student with no prior acting experience
One of five movies nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards (the ceremony for which is 2 weeks away), Ida is a devastating tale of loss and remorse set against the backdrop of 1960’s Poland.
Having spent the majority of her life in a convent, young Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns of the existence of her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). On the advice of the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska), Anna agrees to visit her aunt prior to taking her vows. At first distant and cold, Wanda, a former judge and an avowed communist, soon reveals the truth of Anna’s past, that she is a Jew whose real name is Ida Lebenstein, and that her parents were likely murdered while hiding from the Nazis. In an effort to find out where they’re buried, the two travel to the small town where Anna’s parents lived just before the war, hoping to question a man Wanda believes can shed light on what truly happened to them, and in the process bring closure to her own past as well as that of her niece’s.
First and foremost, Ida is visually stunning (along with being up for Best Foreign Film, the movie also received an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography). Its opening scene, in which Anna and a group of her fellow nuns transport a statue of Jesus to an outdoor shrine, is wonderfully executed. Yet as striking as the imagery is at times, I hesitate to call Ida a beautiful movie. Set a mere 15 years after World War II, many locations still bear the scars left behind by the Nazis, with even the most picturesque areas presented in a way that evokes sadness (aided, of course, by the stark black and white photography, which drains the color from the surrounding communities in much the same way the war drained the life force from its residents). Throughout the film, we see the remnants of what was once a magnificent country, but realize that not enough time has passed to remove the ugliness inflicted by the war.
Yet it was in the casting of the two key roles that director Pawel Pawlikowski showed his true genius. Veteran ac tress Agata Kulesza delivers a haunting performance as Wanda, the hard-edged communist who seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle (at one point during their road trip, she’s arrested for drunk driving) or in the bed of a stranger. From the outset, it’s clear that Wanda is a tortured soul, but we don’t realize the depth of her suffering until much later in the film, when we discover the real reason she made the trip with Anna. On the flipside, Agata Trzebuchowska had no acting experience whatsoever prior to taking the part of Anna, which made her the perfect choice to portray a young girl who spent her life cut off from the outside world, only to find herself thrust into it, an eventuality she was ill-prepared to face (quite often, Anna remains in the background, allowing Wanda to take the lead in their investigation). Through much of the movie, Anna appears lost and confused, and as it turns out, Trzebuchowska was the right actress to bring the character’s fear and uncertainty to the surface.
I’ve yet to see the other foreign language nominees, so I have no idea whether or not Ida is the cream of this year’s crop (Russia’s Leviathan looks intriguing). What I can say with confidence, however, is this is a powerful motion picture, and it deserves every accolade that’s been thrown its way.