Ida (2013) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking
Running Time: 80 min.

Cast: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenplay: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Review published June 2, 2014

Ida is a very simple drama that is about as subtle as it comes, which is especially rare given that the film is ultimately a holocaust survival story.  Set in communist Poland in 1961, it follows a young woman named Anna (played by Agata Trzebuchowska, a nonprofessional actress discovered in a cafe), an orphan raised in a convent on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun.  Before this occurs, she is told by her mother superior that they have discovered the existence of her aunt, her only known relative still living, and that she is to go pay her a visit for an indefinite period.  Aunt Wanda (Kulszka, Suicide Room) is an alcoholic and cynical judge who informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and she is of Jewish descent, and her parents long since deceased, likely exterminated in the events of World War II's atrocities, and the whereabouts of their graves is unknown.  Together, the two travel to the home town of Anna's birth parents to try to discover if anyone knows what happened to them, receiving mostly indifference from the locals.  As Anna discovers more about who her parents were, the more she discovers about who she is herself.

Warsaw-born, London-based director Pawel Pawlikowski's (The Woman in the Fifth, My Summer of Love) film is a beautifully shot gem, framed to appear as an old European new wave cinema classic, framed in 1.37:1 aspect ratio with sumptuous black and white photography.  Pawlikowski effectively uses the frames to capture the bleakness of the moment, in its use of fog, darkness, and in capturing how Anna seems to sink further down on the screen with each passing scene, perhaps symbolizing how much smaller she begins to feel when contrasted to the world that's opening up around her -- her first adventure out of the orphanage -- and in others the room for faith and presence from above.

Though the film is a short eighty minutes, it is a slow and contemplative film that rewards the patient and observant with a rich coming-of-age story of a young woman coming to grips with her past, and, with new knowledge, how it informs her decisions on what to do about her future.  Inevitably, what she will do once the mystery of who she really is begins to unfold is a fascinating thing to ponder, as she has been living a life not meant for her, and yet, it is the only life she has ever known.   Pawlikowski could have gone for a powerhouse ending, but, fittingly for the character, Ida ends as quiet and methodical as how it begins, only with the poignancy of certainty that no stone is left to unturn before Anna commits to the crossroads that have suddenly appeared in a linear life of shelter and servitude.

Anna's choice is between a life of certainty and servitude vs. a life of improvisation and freedom.  It is also the choice between following the path her parents would have wanted for her vs. abandoning the faith that has been instilled in her for her entire life.  By the end, we realize that, for Anna, what she's really looking for is fulfillment, not only of the answer to a mystery, but for whether she can find the enrichment, comfort, and safety of her structured religious path by taking a figurative "leap of faith" into the world outside of the orphanage doors.  Given that the world outside has shown her such atrocities - something that might shake the faith of many people - perhaps her decision extends further into believing in anything at all.  And yet, given that the world outside supplants her daily rituals with cigarettes, booze, strange bedfellows, and, most notably, genocide, perhaps there's something to trying to find fulfillment in a life helping others.

Ida is a subdued and mournful film that doesn't manipulate your emotions or beseech you to hand over your sympathy or empathy.  It earns it in spades. 

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo