A wanderer returns home. Having roamed to Margate (for 2000’s Last Resort), Yorkshire (2004’s My Summer of Love) and from there to Paris (for 2011’s The Woman in the Fifth), Pawel Pawlikowski has returned to his native Poland for his latest film. Ida is a retreat, a regroup, and an acknowledgement that somewhere on the road leading out of Warsaw, this talented imagemaker got very badly lost. Now he finds himself again, quite magnificently.
Where The Woman in the Fifth looked like the work a jobbing international filmmaker feels obliged to undertake with the embarrassment of riches suddenly available to him, the new film pares back to first principles in everything from its Academy-sized frame to its monochrome colour scheme. Its modest success in US arthouses over the summer may be down to an element of novelty: just as The Artist looked (and sounded) like nothing seen on screen since the 1920s, Ida’s small square of light houses a thematic seriousness and visual rigour more commonly associated with the heyday of Robert Bresson.
We are, indeed, in the 1960s here – and Pawlikowski is simultaneously channelling a whole history of Polish cinema dealing with those traumas incurred under the Nazi occupation. A week before taking her vows, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is granted leave to visit her only living relative. Within minutes of entering the flat of her worldly magistrate aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Anna has learnt she’s actually Jewish by birth; furthermore, that she wasn’t originally named Anna, but Ida.
The two hit the road to uncover more about the girl’s parents, and in a film of stark contrasts, perhaps the starkest is that between this odd couple: Wanda darker and dolorous from all that she’s seen and done, striving wherever possible to drown her sorrows with jazz and vodka, Anna/Ida light-haired and open-faced, clinging to her wimple and Bible even as her eyes are widened by new, sometimes welcome, sometimes bruising experience.
The scenery the two pass through could hardly be more dramatic. Pawlikowski’s rediscovery of Margate in Last Resort, and his description of his writer hero’s grotty apartment block in The Woman in the Fifth, indicated a filmmaker drawn to atmospherically rundown backwaters. Here, the contours of rural Poland are captured on damp, wintry afternoons when one might well take to prayer or introspection; there’s one particularly striking, Béla Tarr-like tableau that notes the last dances of a big band night at the hotel the pilgrims are staying at, with balloons littering the floor and someone’s stray dog sniffing around for food.
Throughout, Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 frame dynamically, placing faces and bodies at the bottom or edges of the image, the better to emphasise how the world, and its history, seems to both weigh on and weigh down these characters. It’s a space that feels lived-in, and everything we see and they experience counts double for that: we’re heading towards a conclusion that plays like the coda of a superlative short story, as these women return to their previous lives, only to realise their experiences in the field have been such that those lives can never be the same again.
For the film’s director, at least, this trajectory is more triumph than tragedy. In recounting Ida’s story, Pawlikowski realises there is much to be gained from forsaking the centreground and instead scratching around at the margins – not least a sense of what his cinema could be, rather than what moneymen and marketplace lore insist it should be. It makes for engrossing, revivifying drama: as Anna comes to know exactly who she is, so too does Pawlikowski.
(MovieMail, September 2014)
Ida premieres on Channel 4 tonight at 2.55am.