Film: Ida (2014)
Stars: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
Director: Pawel Pawilowski
Oscar History: 2 nominations/1 win (Best Foreign Language Film-Poland*, Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
There’s something that American mainstream, and at an increasingly alarming rate, American independent cinema, seems incapable of creating, and that is a “moment in life” cinema. Everything that happens in a movie is clear-cut, large, and obviously important. Graduating from high school, getting married, a job promotion, or a sudden death in the family all start out a film, and you know the track of what is to come next. That’s not the case with Ida, which is truly a wonderfully constructed film that almost functions as a mystery in addition to its role as a grim drama, but is clearly European in the way that it doesn’t give you a crib notes version of what is to come.
(Spoilers Ahead) Ida, known at the beginning of the film by her assumed name Anna, is a young woman in 1960’s Poland about to take the veil when she is called to see her aunt Wanda. There she discovers that she is in fact Jewish, and most of her family whom she has never known died during the War. This sets the women off on a trek to find out exactly what happened to Ida’s parents and Wanda’s son, and we see a bevy of characters along the way who shape their worldview.
The film on a baser level is about the juxtaposed personalities of Wanda, a communist with a flavor for casual sex and a thirst for alcohol that consumes her, and Ida, pious, unknowable, and hidden away under a veil, but that’s hardly the purpose of the film. The reality is that we don’t have those moments very often in the film where these characters change as a result of knowing each other like we would in most mainstream opposites-in-a-situation films. Ida and Wanda remain very much themselves, and instead we are treated to something similar to The Secret in Their Eyes (the recent Oscar-winning film) where they are simply two people who are going toward the same goal for different purposes.
The film is staggeringly short at a mere eighty minutes, and we are never given anything but essential plot, making the film feel a bit minimalist. The film’s quick shifts in the final scenes, with Ida letting her veil down for a moment and Wanda finally discovering the truth but little absolution behind the death of her son could have been hurt by us not knowing the characters on the screen, but the script spends so little time on ancillary characters (Dawid Ogrodnik’s job is really just to ignite sexual desires in the two women and the audience) that you still feel like you know Wanda and realize that no one will ever entirely understand Ida (she may not even understand herself).
Both of the leading performances are brilliant takes on their characters. Kulesza, a fixture in Polish entertainment for decades, gets the showier role, frequently finding the rough off-center in her character. Her Wanda never apologizes for who she is, but she’s self-aware enough to know that she’s made deep, permanent mistakes in her life that she’ll never get over. Trzebuchowska gets the harder role, creating a largely unknowable woman and tipping her hand with the character for us to know that there’s something darker, more world-aware and perhaps more cunning than meets the initial eye. Together they create a fascinating swirl of a movie, and one that feels essential and new, even if it’s aesthetic is decidedly old-world.