Ida (2013)

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

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There is a lot of time to roam in Ida but not much space to do it.  The film (only 80 minutes in length) takes its time telling a story someone else might tell in half the time.  Silences linger, characters listen, and plenty of time is cut out, allowing us to jump suddenly ahead in time.  Most of the story, in fact, happens between the cuts.  In the most noteworthy example, I suppose, a character gets drunk and crashes her car, but we only know this when we cut from a shot of her driving to a shot of a tow truck pulling the damaged car out of a ditch.

The film is shot in black and white and mostly with static images in which characters are framed off-center.  This creates a stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere, and when combined with the austere environment in which the nuns and soon to be nuns live, we pretty quickly feel trapped.

The main character is Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska).  She is a week away from taking her vows and becoming a nun when she is confronted with news of her only known relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza).  Anna seeks Wanda out in hopes of finding any information on her parents.

What follows is a bit of a road trip story.  Anna and Wanda bond, but their relationship gets off to a rough start when Wanda’s more free-spirited way of thinking challenges Anna’s strict adherence to her faith.  To make things more interesting, Wanda tells Anna that she is Jewish, and her name was Ida.

Anna/Ida never says much throughout the film, but the actress has dark, piercing eyes, and as she listens to this news about her identity, you can see a million thoughts flash across her eyes.  This sets her on a spiritual journey which takes her to her parents’ grave and leads her into the arms of a handsome stranger, all before she decides she’s had enough and returns to the convent.

I should say that this story takes place in Poland in the mid 1960s.  Anna’s parents were killed during the German occupation, and the only reason she is alive is because she was a young girl with no evidence that she was Jewish.

There is a lot of heavy stuff in Ida, but it’s all told in such a straightforward manner.  We witness these painful truths, but we never indulge in it.  I imagine this is meant to reflect Anna’s own disposition.  She observes all this pain but never succumbs to it.  The most severe reaction we see comes in the form of two tears that streak down her cheek.  This stands in stark contrast to Wanda.  She is so overcome with grief by everything they see and learn that she jumps to her death.

So in Ida we watch as two people react very differently to intense pain.  The stark, static visual aesthetic of the film reflects Anna’s perspective.  She might seem unmoved by all that happens, but we receive occasional glimpses of the effort that goes into holding herself together.

After Wanda’s death Anna dips her toe in the water, trying out a more conventional lifestyle.  She gives into whatever affection she may feel for a hitchhiker they stumble across, and when they find themselves together in bed she asks him what comes next.  The man plays along, saying they could go to the coast together where he has another gig.  Then maybe they get married, get a house and have kids.  She smiles politely at the idea, but it’s pretty clear that she takes these responses seriously, wondering if there is any future for her in this kind of life.

Before we know it she is sneaking out, putting on her shawl (is it a shawl? I think it’s a shawl) and heading back to the convent.  The final shot of the film leads Anna with determination back home, and it’s the only handheld shot of the whole film.

She walks towards the camera with purpose, like a bug attracted to a light.  It might to disservice to her to suggest she’s acting on some kind of primal instinct, but to my knowledge the convent is all she knows.  She lives this way of life out of habit rather than out of critical thought, just like any of us really.

Her short journey with Wanda is the first real taste of the outside world, and her attempts to fall in line with the hitchhiker is an effort to live her life like she imagines Wanda would.  She tries it on, even literally wearing Wanda’s own dress and stumbling around in her high heels, before she decides it’s not for her.

So maybe this is all about how we endure pain, and how it sends us back into our comfort zone.  There is very little, if any, focus on what Anna’s faith does for her.  We only briefly see the inner workings of the convent, just enough to establish the way of life without saying too much about why it matters to her.  We just know that it matters without having to know exactly why.

So I believe that’s like anything in our own lives.  We find home in the things we seek out but also the things given to us at a young age.  Anna wanders out into the world only to learn enough to put her at peace back home in the convent.

Up Next: The Shining (1980), Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (script only), Krampus (2015)

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