Polish born Pawel Pawlikowski‘s latest, Ida, is a monochrome meditation of Holocaust scarred sixties Poland which is so meticulously radical in its framing and thoughtful in its composition that every single shot of this film can stand on its own as a beautifully stirring photograph.
Unpredictable in its plot and enigmatic in its message, Ida centres on its eponymous character’s, an orphaned girl in her late teens, few days away from the convent where she lives and is soon due to take her vows. Staying with an aunt she’s never known, Ida discovers she is Jewish and that her parents were murdered when she was a baby. She and her aunt are the binary opposites of each other; one celibate, programmed and reserved and the other a self-proclaimed ‘slut’, a free spirit and a crudely spoken alcoholic. But the stoicism of Ida makes this dichotomy functional. When her aunt drunkenly drives them into a blunder Ida remains calm. When her aunt makes lewd sexual suggestions Ida is unoffended, instead just distant. Pawlikowski doesn’t employ the typical character type of a soon to be nun with the taciturn disposition of a virgin but a strong woman totally disconnected with her environment and this disconnection gives her a power over it.
With the help of her aunt Ida begins a search to locate her parent’s grave- but they had a traditional wartime Jewish burial: no headstone, no ceremony- just a place in the ground. The details of this story, so rooted in reality make it hang like a sombre fog. Along their travels they pick up a vagabond saxophonist who takes a liking to Ida. He offers her a new way of life but this is not to be.
Ida is authentic and unrestrained by the plot conventions that make today’s dominant cinema so prosaic. Adopting a neo-New Wave style the film draws on Czech cinema. A sequence where Ida’s aunt sits alone in a dance hall- dance halls being a recurring themes throughout the Czech New Wave, recalls a dance hall scene in Milos Forman’s A Blonde in Love (1965). Ida’s short and fruitless romance with a traveling musician is also in alignment with the blonde’s affair.
However, Pawlikowski’s treatment of image is purely his own. At the beginning of the film he decides to place characters awkwardly and sometimes almost outside of the frame. The characters are usually in the bottom left third of the screen. The background, beautifully crafted, takes dominance. The characters are yet to find their place in the film. Film grammar is denounced: when Ida and her aunt are first introduce the traditional shot reverse shots are rejected. So too are the traditional conversation shots where a person is positioned on the edge of the frame facing into it. In his iconoclastic telling of the conversation Ida sits on the left of the frame facing outward.
Pawlikowski further augments the effect of these images with brilliant use of sound. He only uses it when it has something to say. There is no filler soundtrack- silence too can be powerful. Exaggerated sounds of clanking cutlery is used when the girls silently eat their dinner in the convent. The exaggeration is a little comical just as in Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) where all sounds of the woman’s ritual housekeeping are amplified to show the silliness of them. Jazz is also used both to differentiate between the aunt’s world and Ida’s and to juxtapose what’s unfolding on screen.
All elements of this film have been scrutinized over. And what this offers us is a film that’s visually and poetically sublime. Ida is fundamentally brilliant and undeniably hard competition for the best film of the year.