IDA POSTERWithin its compact 80 minute running time the Polish film “Ida” tells its story and creates its visual landscape with a precision and an artistry unlike any other film I’ve seen this year. Shot in striking black and white and told with an unbridled humanity, “Ida” feels as if it would be at home in the filmography of Robert Bresson. It’s a stark and penetrating story working with an aesthetic that is both grim and intensely beautiful.

In the very first shot we are introduced to 18-year old Anna who is played by the wonderful Agata Trzebuchowska. She is a novice nun who is a few days away from taking her vows. But prior to the ceremony her superior instructs her to go visit her one living relative, an aunt who Anna never knew existed. We learn that Anna has grown up in the convent and she basically has no knowledge of her past. The life that Anna does know has been defined within the walls of the convent and for her everything else is a mystery.

IDA1“Ida” is a movie about self-discovery. It’s about a young girl finding her identity and dealing with the revelations of who she is and where she comes from. Helping in her journey is the aforementioned aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking Communist judge who has watched her career and life suffer due to her self-destructive behavior. Kulesza is marvelous in her depiction of Aunt Wanda. There are several depressing complexities at Wanda’s core, but she also provides some surprising moments of dark humor. These are refreshing little breathers in a film otherwise full of bleak and troubling turns.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has a meticulous eye for visual detail which is only overshadowed by the sheer beauty of so many of his shots. You could make a coffee table book full of stunning still images from this film. The story is set in early 1960s Poland and filming in black and white enhances the feelings that we are in the proper time and place. But it isn’t just the look of the film that makes it such a visual delight. It’s also about what Pawlikowski tells us with his camera. We obtain a wealth of information simply by observing and soaking in what the camera is showing.

Let me give you an example. There is a beautiful shot of Wanda and Anna in a car. The camera is in the backseat and we just see the back of their heads as they are driving down a long, straight road. Both are silent and staring straight ahead. Critic Josh Larson points out that in this film “the spiritual meets the secular” and this scene shows that even down to their appearance. Both have head coverings but for very different reasons. Both are heading down a road filled with conflicting emotion and uncertainty. This brief shot, while beautiful in its execution, also tells us a great deal about the two main characters.


Pawlikowski also knows how to bring the most out of his two leads. Make no mistake, these are two of the best performances of the year, but the director uses their strengths to the film’s benefit. Trzebuchowska’s big, dark, expressive eyes explain to us the range of emotions her character experiences throughout the film. Likewise Kulesza’s stern, hollow stares often point to an emptiness within her that she can’t quite handle. Both actresses reveal these things to us, but Pawlikowski is a smart filmmaker and he allows them to express without holding our hands and baby feeding us everything.

There are so many other good things I could say about “Ida”. For example the clever use of sound. Background noises are so well implemented whether it be a crow cawing in the distance or the tinging of spoons hitting soup bowls. I also love the way music is employed. There is some great music in this film, but in every instance (as far as I noticed) it was being played in the movie itself either by a band or a record player. This was a cool little shift from the norm – musical scores playing over scenes.

“Ida” will never get mainstream love and that is a shame. We get annual Transformer-type movies by the dozens, each greeted at the box office with millions of dollars. Yet a film like “Ida” can go easily unnoticed. It certainly deserves attention. Pawel Pawlikowski takes a dramatic turn from his last film (“The Woman in the Fifth”) and shows exceptional craft and technique to go along with two top-notch performances and some really good material. In the end “Ida” offers more in its captivating 80 minutes than many big movies are capable of delivering with more time and a lot more money.


15 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Ida”

  1. I wouldn’t have a clue what post-war Poland felt like, but personally, I was enchanted by this film. Two different souls on a grim journey together.
    Ida is visual poetry, unusual and minimalistic in every aspect. The way it was filmed is strange and beautiful. It haunts you!

    • I feels like what that setting would be. I completely bought it and it gave the movie such a firm sense of place. “Enchanted” is a great word for it. You simply can’t take your eyes off of it.

      Thanks for commenting. Glad we share our enthusiasm.

  2. Keith, great review! There are many aspects to admire which you have mentioned. I’m instantly drawn to contrasts–the cinematography, the presence of God (open sky, the institution) and the relationships with the characters–not mainstream, but sharp, art nonetheless.

  3. Great review Keith! I’m intrigued by “the spiritual meets the secular” parts of the story. Been hearing great things about this one, I should give it a watch soon.

    • Thank you Ruth. It really is fantastic. I hated to be so vague when it came to the spiritual meeting the secular, but when you watch it you’ll know what I’m talking about. Hope you get to check it out soon. It’s a beautiful film.

  4. Great stuff Keith. I’m glad you liked this. I did too, although I really was torn with regard to the cinematography. I was wowed initially as everything looks so good – the crisp black and white, the unusual framing – but after a while I started to get irritated by the repetition of certain devices, particularly the decision to put people in the bottom 1/4 of the screen. (But, that said, I did wonder whether the intention was to include so much sky to constantly remind about the presence of God – and it’s interesting Cindy above also got that.) And for a first-time cinematographer it’s certainly striking work, but I wonder whether such a rigid formalist approach detracts a little from the concept or the historical background which should be so important. Yeesh…I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it all. Otherwise I’m on the same page – great acting, sound design, story, and I agree it’s a real shame this won’t find a bigger audience.

    • Oh i think thats exactly the intention. And just look at some of the times it does go to that angle. Its often at very strategic times in the story.

      On the flipside I think that perspective is a lot more essential than the historical background. As i touch on in the review, the setting is certainly important, but I think focusing too much on that instead could strip the film of its central meaning.

      Interesting discussion. So glad you appreciated the film. Now if only more people will check it out.

  5. I have actually received requests to review this one! Haven’t seen it though!

    It looks like a movie that will make me think. No beer. No chicken. Just a comfortable couch and a coffee type flick haha.

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