Director Pawel Pawlikowski has displayed a keen eye for introducing young female talent. He cast Emily Blunt in her first major picture role as Tasmin in his 2004 film My Summer Love. Pawlikowski may have done it again with his lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska in the title role of his new film Ida.
The film focuses on a novice nun in the days leading up to her taking her vows. As one of the last acts before she commits to the church, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan that has grown up in the monastery, is sent to meet with her only living relative Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Ida travels to her Aunt’s residence only to discover that they appear to be complete opposites. Wanda is promiscuous, a drinker and greets each morning with a hangover. It is clear that at one point Wanda was employed as a judge, but the film never elaborates on what happened to her. When Wanda reveals that the family is of Jewish heritage, the pair set out on a journey to learn more about Ida’s parents and themselves as well.
The two lead performances in the film are outstanding. Agata Kulesza gives Wanda a tough edge as she constantly pushes and tests Ida’s religious devotion. She is loud, confrontational and determined to educate Ida on everything she needs to know prior to taking her religious vows. Agata Trzebuchowska shines as the quiet, naïve and understated Ida. She has little knowledge of the world outside of the convent. Trzebuchowska manages to successfully convey Ida’s growth from naïve soul to a woman who is ready to make an informed decision about her future.
Pawlikowski’s choice of shooting in black and white is very effective in regards to providing a unique feel to the film. This is especially noticeable in the scenes at both the monastery and in the Polish countryside towns. The muted black and white tones also suit the lonely stark road that the pair travels down in pursuit of their goal. Pawlikowski compliments the overall look of the film through his compelling framing decisions.
The real strength of Ida is the story itself. Pawlikowski co-wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The result is a very powerful narrative on religion, dispossession, wartime atrocities, and the lack of consequences for the perpetuators. The story starts out with a simple premise, hits a major revelation early on, and then proceeds to build and unravel a complex narrative as the action progresses.
Music plays a significant role in the film. In one scene Ida and Wanda pick up a saxophone playing hitchhiker and bring him to his next gig. The band’s jazz set is featured prominently in a particular segment of the film. Look for Joanna Kulig, who Pawlikowski worked with on The Women in the Fifth, as the band’s lead singer. The standards of the time, mostly played on upright phonographs, are also featured prominently in the film.
Ida is a beautifully shot and marvelously written story. It highlights two different women as they come to terms with their history and beliefs. It is a film that I can highly recommend, and is destined to be on many top ten lists by year’s end.