Movie Review: Ida (2014)
“Ida” is a spare, quiet, beautiful film, photographed in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who discovers a dark secret about her family’s past during World War II.
It’s also the best road-trip movie I’ve seen in years.
“You’re a funny couple,” says Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young, handsome alto-sax player whom Anna and her aunt Wanda (Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza), pick up hitch-hiking. “My Aunt and me?” Anna responds. “I know.”
They’re funny ha-ha and not. Because they’re searching for unmarked graves. They’re searching for the bodies of Anna’s parents.
Road-trip movies are all about tossing together opposites, and “Ida” is no different, but on a deeper level. I think of Wanda as having lived through the middle of the 20th century—Depression, World War II, totalitariansm—and having absorbed its horrible lessons: there is no God, and there is no secular human progress. So what do you do then? What do you cling to? Wanda had communism for a while, and a rise to power in the 1950s, but now she simply distracts herself from the vast, absurd emptiness with booze, sex, and a wicked tongue.
The movie opens in a convent, where Anna, who has a spare, unadorned beauty that fits the film, is cleaning and restoring (one might say resurrecting) a statue of Jesus. She is also preparing to take her vows. Then the nuns tell her that her sole living relative, Wanda, living in Lodz, has finally responded to their queries. She should go see her. She does so, reluctantly, but with open eyes.
At Wanda’s place, the dark family secret is revealed quickly, and it’s less dark than tragic. Anna isn’t Anna but Ida Lebenstein. She and Wanda are the only ones left in their family because they’re Jewish and it’s post-World War II Poland.
At first it’s enough for Wanda to say all this and send her niece back. But she finds herself transfixed by Anna’s resemblance to her own sister, and she heads her off at the train station. She wants to bond with her. Or convert her? But to what? A prosecutor in the Stalinist era and now a judge, Wanda wants to find out what happened to Ida’s parents and bring their bones back, but she warns Anna about going along: “What if you go and discover there is no God?”
At the same time, she enjoys teasing her niece.
Wanda: Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?
Wanda: About carnal matters?
Wanda: That’s a shame.
They first travel to the isolated farmhouse where the Lebensteins once lived. A Polish family, headed by Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), now lives there, and he’s suspicious of all strangers but Wanda in particular:
Wanda: Did you know the Lebensteins? They lived here before the war.
Wanda: No, Eskimos.
But they’re respectful to Anna, scarved as a novitiate nun, and for a time I thought that would be the plan: send in beatific Anna, alone, to get the answers, which Wanda, a Jewish prosecutor, could not. Instead they follow Wanda’s lead and visit Feliks’ father, dying in a hospital, and go to a nightclub, where Lis, their alto-sax guy, is playing jazz. Wanda drinks too much, fools around, defends herself to a silent Anna. “This Jesus of yours, he adored people like me,” she says. The closer they get to an answer, the more Wanda seems to unravel.
The search doesn’t go much further than Feliks and his father, because it doesn’t need to. Feliks is responsible. He killed the Lebensteins for their home because he could. In exchange for leaving his dying father alone, he takes Anna and Wanda into the woods and unearths the bodies. There, Anna/Ida learns she had an older brother. “The boy was dark and circumcized,” she’s told. “You were tiny.” Thus she lives; thus he died. It’s that.
“Ida” is written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (“The Woman in the Fifth”), and photographed by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, who have won awards all over the place for it—including the Spotlight Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. It truly is a gorgeous movie. Several shots stand out, none more than the last. There’s not a frame of the movie I didn’t like.
The road trip is great, but what makes “Ida” one of the best movies of the year is what happens afterwards. At the start, Anna has absolute faith, Wanda has none. So what happens? Anna returns to the convent but her faith isn’t absolute anymore. During a meal, she suddenly bursts out laughing—we don’t know why—and shortly after she speaks with the statue of Jesus. “I’m not ready,” she tells him. “Forgive me.”
The effect of the trip is worse on Wanda. Nothing is restored for her, more is simply lost. Maybe what kept her going all of these years was the mystery, and now even that’s gone. One day she’s cleaning the apartment, listening to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and suddenly she jumps out the open window. The camera stays. The music keeps playing to an empty house.
Ida comes for the funeral and hooks up with Lis. In bed, he talks of the life they’ll live together. They’ll have kids, buy a house, raise a family. “And then?” she keeps saying. “And then?” He’s offering her a good life but before the trip she had an eternal life. Now, not. Now there’s just “And then?” She can’t be on the eternal path but she doesn’t know which path to take. The final shots see her walking a road against the sparse traffic, her path uneven, unstable, the camera suddenly jerky. It’s our path.