A novice touches the face of Christ with a paintbrush, intently adding the last drops of pigment to the wooden statue. Dutifully, she and three other women carry the Christ on their shoulders, through a chicken coop, and then outside. With some effort they balance the figure on a pedestal in the convent courtyard. Then they pray.
Pawel Pawlikowski communicates a palpable sense of fragility in this opening scene of his film Ida. The director lets us know that what we hold closest, what we believe is most real, is precarious. Our identities — the beliefs we hold about our past and our future — can, with the slightest push in the right place, collapse around us.
The film Ida tells the story of an orphaned novice, Anna, who travels to meet her only relative before she takes her vows. This relative is her aunt, Wanda Greusel, a mirror image of the soon-to-be nun. Wanda works as judge in the socialist Poland of the 1960s. She is a woman of the world, a cynic, who indulges unreservedly in everything—music, alcohol, cigarettes, men. Anna is young, innocent, naive, unwaveringly faithful.
However, what Anna learns on her trip displaces her entirely. “You’re a Jew,” Wanda tells her dryly. This sentence shatters Ida’s visions of the past and the future.
From here the film becomes a sort of travel movie, reckoning with historical and spiritual questions of identity. The odd couple, Ida and Wanda, look for where Ida’s parents, including Wanda’s sister, are buried. “Your parents don’t have graves. No Jews do,” Wanda tells Ida. During the Second World War Poland lost over three million Jews. The trauma of the war and the injustices that continued in Poland with Communist control soon afterward set the important subtext for Pawlikowski’s film. As critic for The New Yorker, David Denby, notices, the horrors of genocide are rarely verbalized in Ida, but they manifest in the atmosphere. The landscapes are empty, buildings are never full, there is a hollowness, a stale reservation in conversations caused by the knowledge that many who survived the genocide were in various ways complicit in it.
In an interview Pawlikowski describes the personal and national questions he tries to address through the film: “What defines identity? The blood that you have? The faith you grew up with or your self-understanding? Can you escape all of these definitions and live a purely spiritual existence? Poland is full of these questions.”
You may know Pawlikowski for his latest film, Cold War (a nominee at the most recent academy awards for best director, best cinematography, and best foreign language film. Ida won best foreign language film four years earlier). These latest two of the director’s movies are in his native tongue and made with an astounding minimalism. However, Ida is far more restrained than Cold War.
This is evident in the effect of Pawlikowski’s film techniques. Both movies are shot in black and white, with a constrained, nearly square, aspect ratio. (If this style of filmmaking sounds similar to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, that’s because it is; Schrader cites Ida as a key inspiration). In Cold War the black and white contrasts scream with a stark boldness, heightening the romance between Wiktor and Zula (two characters inspired by Pawlikowski’s parents) as the war and ideology of the 1950s repeatedly separate and then reunite them. The aspect ratio intensifies the actors’ emotions; the screen’s tight size funnels all the energy of the typical wide screen more directly at the viewer. Ida, in contrast, conveys a softer tone, although it tells no less intense of a story. Shades of medium gray suffuse the movie with an emotion of unspoken loss and distance.
Perhaps the most effective difference between Ida and Cold War is the camera movement. The camera is alive in Cold War, moving with the characters, channeling their romantic and often drunken energy. In Ida the camera never moves, not until the last scene. Accordingly, the actors are like figures in paintings; when they are not the subjects of portraits, they are living elements of a landscape moving in and out of frame. The shots in Ida can feel as still and flat as medieval icons, but they brim with an emotional tension that only comes with such concentrated patience.
Adding to this tension, Pawlikowski shoots scenes in Ida with the characters off-center. Actors’ faces are often shown at the bottom of the screen or in the corner, capturing the characters’ distinct place in their environment but also their alienation from it.
In a way Wanda and Ida present two ways of reconciling with the past. Wanda distracts herself with pleasure or at least the promise of it in alcohol and other intoxications. Ida faces a choice: to take vows in a tradition unconnected to her heritage or to live a life of freedom, perhaps closer to the one she would have lived had her family survived.
Is identity something you choose? Or something you inherit? I won’t tell you Ida’s answer to these questions but this anecdote by Pawlikowski will give you a clue. When asked what inspired the film Ida Pawlikowski gave three stories.
First, there was the landscape: Poland in the 1960s of which despite its barren depiction in Ida, Pawlikowski still carries fond childhood memories. Second, there was Wanda, a woman he met at Oxford as a student. She was a woman who appeared to have transformed herself completely. “She seemed to have been two different people at different points in her life,” Pawlikowski describes. Finally, there was a priest Pawlikowski knew who discovered well into his vocation that he was actually Jewish. The revelation tested the man of the cloth. But he didn’t lose his faith because of it. It became deeper. He found a way somehow to live with both identities.
Instead of shying away from these tensions, the film reaffirms them: humans are creatures of identity. We search for meaning, security, a sense of hope for the future. Our place in time and geography shape these aspirations. Pawlikowski displays the hard complexity of this reality, that we are neither entirely dependent on or independent of our environments but are rather shaped by the values of our family and the political forces of our history. Yet we are also distinctly ourselves—individuals. Ida shows us this: while Wanda doesn’t find release (at least perhaps not till the very end), Ida finds a way, however difficult, to live freely within the constraints of her heritage.
Joseph Reigle is an undergraduate at Cornell University, studying City and Regional Planning.