Born to a family of Polish intellectuals, Pawel Pawlikovsky has spent most of his life outside of his native Poland. Now settled in the UK, his cinematic output has always displayed a shameless and ironic rootlessness that found its most pristine expression in Dostoevsky’s Travels, an award-winning documentary about Dostoevsky’s last living relative travelling all over Western Europe in an effort to scrape together enough money to buy a car. As Pawlikovsky’s career has progressed, he has moved further and further from the documentary form but the same ironic internationalism remains: My Summer of Love saw him trying his hand at being a British director while The Woman in the Fifth allowed him to flirt with the traditions of the French. Set in Poland in the early 1960s, Ida can be seen as a (not entirely successful) attempt to step away from the irony and return home.
The film opens with wordless scenes from a Polish convent; Prayers in a minor key tumbling over and over onto stone floors while dinners are punctuated only by the sound of spoons scraping across enamelled plates. A young woman named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was raised in the convent and now prepares to take vows of her own. However, worried that the young woman may be about to lock herself away from a world that she has never experienced or tried to understand, the prioress orders Anna to travel to a nearby town in order to meet the last surviving member of a family she never knew existed.
Anna arrives at her aunt’s apartment to find her dressed only in a silk robe as a nameless lover hastily dresses and shuffles out of sight. All dark eyes and artfully poised cigarettes, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a one-time socialist inquisitor who has taken to drink and men as part of her early and (one presumes) undesired retirement. The two women swap suspicious stares until Wanda breaks the silence by casually revealing that Anna is Jewish and that her real name is actually Ida.
It turns out that Ida and Wanda are the only surviving members of a family of Jewish farmers who were murdered and chased off their land during the War. Desperate to find the remains of Ida’s parents so that her family can be put to rest, Wanda takes Ida on a journey back into their shared past.
Beautifully composed and shot entirely in gorgeously stark black and white, Ida is one of the most visually arresting films you are likely to see this year. The performances are excellent, the locations are well-chosen and the themes of faith and obligation echo through almost every shot of the film. However, despite being made with incredible care and lasting only eighty minutes, the story that Ida is trying to tell feels too insubstantial to fill the cinematic space that Pawlikovsky and his two directors of photography have managed to create.
The frustrating thing about Ida is that while the film contains all the elements required to be a masterpiece, Pawlikovsky systematically fails to make the most of his subject matter:
Trzebuchowska’s Ida is unworldly and pure while Kulesza’s Wanda is gloriously tainted and all the more human for it. The initial encounter between the two women bodes well but the film’s minimalist script would rather have them sit in awkward silence than initiate the type of conversation that both women might learn from. The film ends with Anna trying on Wanda’s life for size but what could have been a moving expressing of respect and love feels trite and opportunistic because Pawlikovsky failed to forge an emotional connection between the two characters.
A similar sense of wasted opportunity surrounds the decision to make Ida’s family Jewish as the script never bothers to explain what it meant to be Jewish in 1960s Poland. For example, a script with an interest in Polish religious history might have unpacked the implications for Anna’s late-blooming Judaism and explained why discovering that you are Jewish might want to make you think twice about becoming a nun. Similarly, a script with an interest in Polish political history might have noted that Jewish people were purged from the Communist party a few years after the events of the film and explored the way in which a rising tide of anti-Semitism would have forced a respected political prosecutor into near-exile for the crime of being Jewish. By choosing to gloss over the cultural, political and social context of Ida’s journey of discovery, Pawlikovsky ensures that the events of her life are forever lacking in emotional charge.
In fairness, Pawlikovsky does allude to these ideas and themes but he never bothers to either unpack them or make the characters’ emotional responses clear. This pointed silence invites the audience to speculate about the characters’ emotional states but this ensures that Ida’s story becomes something for the audience to grasp intellectually rather than experience emotionally. Ida contains the potential for greatness but an under-written script ensures that this beautiful film remains an emotionally impacted affair.