The Film: Ida
What’s It About? A young woman preparing to become a nun is sent from her convent home into the secular world to spend several days with her only relative. The trip will bring Anna into contact with experiences outside her sheltered world, and will lead her to knowledge that may shake her sense of her own identity.
Number of Oscar Nominations: 2
Will It Win? I haven’t seen any of the other nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, so I am not sure how well Ida compares to them. I do know that Pawel Pawlikowski’s film seems to be the only one that anyone is talking about, so it may end up winning by simply wearing down the Academy voters.
Whatever its chances in the Best Foreign Film category, it more than deserves praise for its exquisite cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. The crisp black and white look of the film is a huge part of its appeal, as are its extended moments of silence. Zal and Lencczewski face stiff competition, though. Birdman has been picking up a lot of awards in the last couple of weeks, and the Academy already likes Emmanuel Lubezki (he won for Gravity). Also nominated are Dick Pope for Mr Turner, Robert Yeoman for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and always a bridesmaid never the bride Roger Deakins for Unbroken.
There’s a feeling among cinematographers that Ida deserves the Oscar but that Birdman will probably win. Late last year The Hollywood Reporter convened a roundtable of directors of photography: Roger Deakins, Jeff Cronenweth, Dick Pope, Dion Beebe, Matthew Libatique, and Benoit Delhomme talk about their craft. The video is forty minutes long but well worth watching.
In Poland in the early 1960s Anna, a novitiate at a convent, is about to taker her vows. An orphan she has lived almost her entire life at this place and knows nothing of the outside world, and nothing about her family. She is informed that she has an aunt, and urged to leave the convent and meet her. What follows is a road movie of sorts that is a stark examination of some painful truths about Poland’s past. The film is brief (barely 80 minutes) but it makes every moment count, as Anna uncovers a family secret and discovers her real identity.
Her aunt is Wanda, a boozy, chain-smoking loner, and the scene that introduces her deliberately makes you think that she is a prostitute. She isn’t; in fact she’s a magistrate with a fearsome reputation. The two women couldn’t be more different, of course, in appearance or manner, but this is not one of those awful movies where an odd couple go on a journey and each learns something about themselves from the other.
The war and its memories of life under the Nazis hangs over the story, but so does the grim reality of life in a totalitarian state. And it is grim. The locations are bleak. Many of the rooms people stand in have high ceilings, lots of light and ornate woodwork, yet the shots are composed in such a way that the people seem overwhelmed. There are several moments where the would-be nun is framed behind or close to decorative ironwork, and it’s one of the film’s strengths that the symbolism does not look forced.
Extras standing in the background look weary and defeated. Even when listening to something as notionally freeing as jazz. There is a lot of jazz in this film; the two women are joined by Lis, a saxophonist who takes a fancy to young Anna, and who is doing whatever he can to avoid the Army.
The three are all prisoners, in a sense, of the Church, of the State, or of convention. You might think the jazz-man would be a rebel, but he seems to be just as traditional about marriage, kids and “the usual hassles” of Life as any suburbanite.
The two leads are wonderful. Agata Trzebbuchowska has an elfin face, and for most of the film, it’s all you see of her, as she is clothed head to toe in a grey habit and wiimple. The result is you focus on her large and dark eyes, which she uses to gaze at the world with a certain mournful innocence. She has a remarkable presence in a role that requires a great sense of stillness.
Agata Kulesza, meanwhile, has the tired look of someone who has seen too much of life, who has earned every line on her face, and who nurses her regrets and loneliness with a wry, boozy weariness, and whose only real pleasure seems to be listening to classical music. There’s a great moment when she has trouble lighting a cigarette where she achieves in fifteen seconds what some actors need a whole scene to do.
One more word about the film’s look. It wasn’t shot on widescreen; it uses a 4:3 ratio, which I think helps convey the feel of the piece. More than one critic has pointed out that the film looks like it was actually filmed in the 1960s; that it’s a rediscovered lost masterpiece. There is a fantastic article here exploring the film’s photography, but be warned, it contains some spoilers.
Verdict: Five Habits out of Five