On paper, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida plays out predictably. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an orphan and a young novitiate nun just weeks from taking her vows and shutting herself away in a convent for the rest of her life. Then, the orphan’s estranged aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), comes out of the wood work. Wanda has lived a very different life than the one Anna is looking forward to. Chain smoking, hard drinking, and melancholic, she was a tribunal judge for the Polish communist government in the years after the end of World War II. During the course of the film she allows a queue of nameless men to make their way through her bed. She reaches out to Anna to help her track down her parents. The innocent is let loose in the realm of experience, and you brace yourself for the shedding of her habit.
But Ida is a much more subtle and slippery film than the young-nun-in-crisis narrative might suggest. Anna’s parents, it turns out, were Jewish, mercy-killed by their neighbors before they could be brought to the concentration camps. Anna was spared only because she was a little baby and didn’t look Jewish, and the neighbors could hide her with a local priest. As Anna and Wanda travel through the Polish countryside piecing together this forgotten (and in the case of the neighbors, denied) history, Anna must confront every aspect of her identity: familial and religious history, the nature of her convictions, the untested grounds of her sexuality. Wanda is an uneasy, though consistent guide through the fallen world. From combative confrontations with neighbors to smoky nightclubs where Anna meets an attractive young sax player, the young nun is thrown into life’s deep end. When Anna tells Wanda she has never had sex, Wanda snaps back, “You should try, otherwise, what kind of sacrifice is this?”
That line seems to encapsulate the thrust of Pawlikowski’s moral vision: The blemishes and joys of life are too tangled-up in the living of life to allow for the stark moral convictions suggested by religious life. The world doesn’t so much tempt Anna, as it exposes something insincere about trying to shelter oneself from it. When Anna returns to the convent for a spell, her fellow novitiates are quietly making wreaths from branches. She looks at them like they are children.
Pawlikowski, however, is too gifted a storyteller to allow his film to devolve into a simple lampooning of religious conviction. Anna’s entire experience of the suffering she encounters, from the historical ordeals of her family to her aunt’s tortured existence, is touched and tempered by a quiet resolve. The strength of Trzebuchowska’s performance comes from the way she withholds this interior trauma from the audience. Pawlikowski allows his camera to linger on Trzebuchowska eyes. We never quite know what she is thinking or how she is being affected by her experience. This, in turn, allows us to be just as surprised by her when she is suddenly dancing barefoot with the sax player after hours at the club as when she ties on her habit before slipping out of his apartment door.
The most accomplished and striking thing about Ida, though, is its beautiful, high contrast black and white photography and the way Pawlikowski frames his story, using architecture and peculiar camera angles to obscure, reflect, cut off, or place his characters against stark backdrops. The style forces the architecture to become part of the story. Often severely modern, it seems to resist and contort, it withholds history and forces the characters to stand out, as if in relief, against their flattened environments. It is a style that feels indebted to Ingmar Bergman or Wim Wenders, but also reminiscent in its patience and insistence of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr.
This visual style elevates the sparse narrative, and lends texture to a story that is driven by a steady, slow-burning – and almost too-direct and literal – drama. Anna is wrestling with the nature of human experience – in all its grey-toned evils and wonderful seductions – and at times it is as if that interior turmoil seems projected onto the backdrop in shadows, lights, and window reflections that function like abstract paintings. Pawlikowski also shoots many scenes from a low perspective point which has the effect of framing his subjects against looming ceilings, or keeping their heads bobbing — disembodied — just above the bottom of the frame. Again there is an ambiguous duality to the approach. Do these hollow, hovering shots allow space in the frame for the looming heavens, or emphasize the vacancy of the world?