Leave it to Kieślowski’s homeland of Poland to produce yet another beautiful work of inspiration and poignancy.
I love it when a movie completely and utterly wins me over and never lessens its hold, it’s what I look for in every single movie going experience. This is one of those movies where you sit with the rest of the audience to the last credited name just in awe at the accomplishment that was just presented on-screen.
When you actually start to think about it there are very few mainstream films that treat audiences like adults and reasonably intelligent people. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, I’m not blaming either the audience or filmmakers. Everyone needs an outlet to unwind and relax and they want their movies to be that outlet, to entertain, and that’s perfectly fine. While filmmakers want more people to see their work. They want to get, at the very least, their production costs back. So they make movies that can be catered to the wants of the general public. Give the people what they want, I understand it. I personally just need more in my films, I need to be challenged in some way when I take a seat in a movie theater. I need to relate to the characters and conflict rendered on-screen on some level. It is just different strokes for different folks, all in all.
Now with all that out of the way, films like Ida represent the reasons I specially go to the movies, to be completely taken in every possible way at a vision, technique and story. The film portrays the story of the titular character, a young woman Ida Cruz, played gracefully by Agata Trzebuchowska, who is about to take her vows to become a nun in a Polish convent circa the early 1960’s. The head of the convent asks that she talk with her Aunt Wanda, her only living relative, about her family that she never knew before taking her vows. She is given an address and travels to find her. Completely unaware and unprepared of what her Aunt, played outstandingly by Agata Kulesza, will reveal to her about her mysterious past.
When Ida first meets with her estranged aunt it is obvious that there is something about her niece that Wanda doesn’t appreciate. ‘Red’ Wanda, as her coworkers call her, has a internal fury and fiery disposition about her that provides a great juxtaposition to Ida’s innocence, patient and kind demeanor. That is all I want to really talk about in terms of the plot, I really don’t want to spoil any sort of discovery for you. Director Pawel Pawlikowski gives us a road trip movie like you’ve never seen before, dealing with themes of family, legacy, faith, guilt and self-discovery. Photographed in gorgeous Black and White, the shadows and shadings of light all adding to the sometimes foreboding nature of digging up one’s long buried past. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal lens absolutely beautiful shots of the Polish country-side and of the two women’s very different kinds of self-isolation.
Wanda has isolated herself from any sort of emotional connections because of her and her family’s tragic past; Ida shields herself from the dark unknowable world outside her convent, letting devotion to her faith guide her in her journey. The two perspectives the women have offer a great contrast in outlooks, but with similar feelings of loneliness and viewing the world at arm’s length. Passing the Bechdal test with flying colors, the two’s conversations about family, religion, faith and life’s decisions are highlights of the year thus far. Their quest to unearth a wrongfully forgotten family history is one that fulfills on so many levels.
To reiterate the acting in the film, the chemistry between Trzebuchowska and Kulesza is impeccable steadily driving the narrative’s momentum. Trzebuchowska, on her own, gives Ida a proper mix of innocence, naivety and curiosity. She says more with an out-of-place chuckle in one scene than most actresses do with an entire movie. However, if Ida is the innocence personified, Kulesza as Wanda is the antithesis. She drinks heavily, chain smokes, sleeps around and her temper is not what you’d call in control. The sources of her internal rage are slowly and heart-wrenchingly revealed as the two bond together.
To go on a little bit of a tangent: If I’m ever asked the loaded question “what is film?”, to me (at the least the snobbish ‘film student’ in me will say) it is the one artistic medium where aesthetics and human emotion have to be in-balance with each other and be on the same wave-length constantly in order to generate an emotional connection with a viewer. As I touched on in The Double review with shifting comedic and dramatic tones, most films will oscillate between the two medians within the running-time, but the larger the gap the more easily you’ll lose an audience. Too much pretty imagery and not enough character and you’re an imaginative screen saver; too much emoting and not enough thoughtful shots and framing and you’re a melodramatic stage play (All things equal, I would prefer the stage play to the screen saver every time). Rare films like Ida find that perfect mean between the two that remains constant throughout, and it will always leaves me in awe whenever this is accomplished.
Road trip movies have been indelible and seminal works for audiences since the very beginnings of film. In general, films on their own can be also be journeys of introspection and refection just as much as the archetypal road trip depicted here. To bring it all back to what I first talked about with my own personal tastes contrasting with those of an average movie-goer, on most journeys of self-discovery it is a rewarding process of trial and error. As we’re more likely to single out who we’re not, rather than who we really are.