By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz May 4, 2014 at 12:00PM
An immaculate life of solitude and devotion to God is a commitment marked by sacrifice for which not many are prepared. Giving up mundane and carnal pleasures for a state of plentiful spirituality is not simple undertaking. There must be no doubt, no curiosity to experience the world outside the values of chastity and humbleness, and any vestiges of selfish behavior must be eradicated to achieve purity in the eyes of the church. Such is the decision Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an 18-year-old novice must make in Pawel Pawlikowski’s utterly unforgettable drama Ida. Set the post-Holocaust Poland of the 1960s where the scars of the war still caused chilling pain, the film focuses on the chance Anna is given to discover her origins before taking on a path of lifelong faith. Through her journey not only will she find answers to her personal mysteries, but the hidden turmoil of a time of cruel transition for the Polish nation will also be exposed.
Certain of what her future as a nun should be, Anna needs no more convincing or reassuring - she is ready. However, before she takes the next step she is
persuaded by the Mother Superior to visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), whose existence was unknown to her. Immediately after meeting, it
is obvious that they couldn’t be more different. Wanda is a retired prosecutor who sentenced many criminals during her better days.
Reduced to find happiness in one-night stands, cigarettes, and liquor, there is very little tenderness left in her to give.
On their first encounter she explains to Anna that she is Jewish, that her birth name is Ida Lebenstein, and that her parents died in the war. These shattering revelations instantly ignite a sense of conflicted identity in the young woman who was raised in Catholic convent unaware of her real story. Like her country, she is divided between what her past tells her she is, and what she wants to become in the future.
Embarking on a road trip through several small towns, the two women are in search of the pieces to rewrite a chapter of their lives erased by history and the perpetrators’ guilt. They visit the family’s old house to unveil the dark secrets hidden under the surface, a task that will take them to face their individual demons. Wanda can’t forgive herself for not being able to stop the atrocities from happening, while Anna has discovered what is beyond the convent’s walls. Temptation knocks at the Anna’s door in the form of a boy, and though she knows she must transition into the obedient servant she has been preparing to be her entire life, maybe she wants to live one day as Ida in the poisonous world of mortals.
Gorgeously crafted, the black-and-white cinematography and a sublimely written story allow for very little room to critique a film with not a single
miscalculation. Agata Trzebuchowska
as Anna/Ida is spectacularly contained and tranquil playing off the more violent emotions delivered by the also marvelous Agata Kulesza, as the apparently strong, yet vulnerable Wanda. Every line of dialogue ripples through the scenes highlighting the importance of the balance between words and silence.
Tightly edited to last 80 minutes, Pawlikowski created a nuanced and provocative story that uses its historical context in an intelligent way that still
lets the characters shine for their individual struggles. Achieved with masterful technique in every aspect of its exquisite conception, Ida is as flawless a film as one will see this year. Each frame is a stunning work of sheer perfection.
With Ida Pawlikowski has introduced a new art house classic that is so layered with historical relevance as it is profoundly inquisitive about what defines a person’s self-perception. Is the protagonist Anna or Ida? Is she Jewish or Christian? Is she a soon-to-be nun or is she a young woman finding herself? Is what she was at birth what she really is or is what she decides to be what matters? And if she is a combination of all of these, then how can she live with all the conflicting elements of her identity? With no rigid, definitive answer, she owes it to herself to experience both. Although often located at the bottom third of the frame, Anna and Ida will always be fighting to come to the surface, sometimes obscuring and at times enhancing the other half.