Ida (2014)

Review #1,170

Director:  Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast:   Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik 
Plot:  Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film.  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Cinematography.  Won FIPRESCI Prize (Toronto).
Runtime:  82min
Rating:  NC16 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking.
International Sales:  Portobello 

“Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?”

Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year, Ida doesn't quite deserve such a high accolade in my books, considering the competition that year.  I maintain that Andrei Zvyagintsev's Leviathan (2014) was the more accomplished picture, and should have nabbed the award.  Even films like Winter Sleep (2014) by Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Mommy (2014) by wunderkind Xavier Dolan, or Force Majeure (2014) by Ruben Ostlund were stronger pieces of cinema, but all failed to be nominated. 

Okay, I'm done with my customary jab at the Oscars – so let's focus on Ida, which is a very beautiful film.  To be fair, it features some of the best cinematography work (also nominated for an Oscar) that I have seen of films released in 2014.  

Shot with a spare, understated elegance, Ida's black-and-white imagery is often imbued with hues of hazy grey, the kind that lends the film a sense of rich historicity.  Like many Polish films before it, Ida is borne out of a troubled past, very often from the spectre of the Nazi occupation that continues to haunt its people.

Agata Trzebuchowska, in her first (and probably last) acting gig (according to director Pawel Pawlikowski, she was apparently found in a cafe by a casting scout), delivers a superb performance as Anna, a soon-to-be-official nun awaiting to take her vows in the church that she was raised in.  Upon receiving word, she makes a trip to town to be acquainted with an aunt that she didn't know existed.  They embark on a journey to unravel the secrets of their family's past. 

Pawlikowski's film is essentially a semi-road trip that doubles up as a film about self-discovery.  By pitting the innocent and curious Anna against her worldly, I-do-as-I-please aunt, the film draws tension from putting the former in compromising situations where she faces not just the dark truth of her and her country's past, but also the uncertainty of her future. 

Sex, men, the possibility of marriage and having a family arouses and troubles her – does she put her faith in life's pleasures where it could easily become pain, or does she devote herself fully to God, where she would be eternally shielded?

Pawlikowski's film asks such questions, but his presentation of themes and ideas may seem too light to be fully reckoned with, even if the subject matter does suggest something deep.  There's a lack of narrative depth, and at an economical 82 minutes in duration, Ida does feel like a lesser picture.  It is cinematic, but never narratively sufficient. 

Verdict:  This black-and-white Polish Oscar winner is shot with a spare, understated elegance, but sometimes at the expense of narrative depth. 


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