I was extremely impressed with Polish Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s two British films Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004), both of which were small and intelligent dramas, and after seeing his latest work, Ida, I now think he is one of the most important contemporary film makers around. Pawlikowski has gone back to his roots and the film is set in the post World War II Poland of the 1960s. Anna, played by Agata Trzebuchowska, is a novice nun about to take her vows, until she meets her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and discovers not only her Jewish roots but her real name, Ida, and they embark upon a road trip to uncover their family’s tragic past.
It really is rare to see a film which manages to get things so completely right visually, thematically and narratively. Ida is a visual tour de force. Every single monochrome shot I would happily have printed large and framed on my wall, so beautiful is the composition, so evocative is the lighting, so careful and imaginative is the framing. There are times when the characters are in so much painful emotional turmoil that we are not shown their expressions; their faces are hidden and we are left to quietly contemplate or cry, not exactly with them but with respectful empathy. It is also the visual mood of the 60s which just looks so fantastically stylish, all cigarette smoke, head scarves and classic cars. Yet this is not the colourful TV 60s of Mad Men and The Masters of Sex, more the darker, bleaker European waves of Truffaut, Polanski and Chabrol. The two cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lucazs Zal really have created the most intelligently and carefully shot film I have seen for a very long time.
As with all the best kind of film making, Ida tells a small personal story which explores a much bigger picture, in this case, the repercussions of the Holocaust; a picture which is and always has been impossible to grasp. It is a deeply personal tale of one family’s tragedy which grabs you by the heart and punches you in the throat. This kind of intimate drama, which also discusses those other big themes of faith, sex and politics, is not specifically a “holocaust” film but is more about the families torn apart, the aftermath, the horrors never shown but which create a pain more intense and perhaps more tangible than some films which show you these unbearable atrocities head on, where we watch from afar, detached and disbelieving.
This is definitely one of the saddest and most awkward odd couple road trips on screen and the pitch perfect performances from the two leads, as aunt and niece get to know and love each other, are filled with melancholy, humour and graceful subtlety.
Don’t be put off by the bleak subject, just be prepared to emerge from the screening with streaming eyes and a broken heart. A film so beautiful it will leave you incapable of speech for a long time after the credits have rolled.