Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/07/14 12:07:46

"Watch this one closely. It's worth it."
5 stars (Awesome)

Roughly three scenes into "Ida", I figured that a good way to review this movie might be to simply list every scene - nay, every shot - and say why I loved it. Eighty minutes later, I was still fairly keen on the idea, although it would probably be too unwieldy. Besides, that runs the risk of over-emphasizing how good individual shots are at the expense of the whole, which is just as good as the sum of a number of excellent parts should be.

It starts with Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an eighteen-year-old novice about to take her vows to join he order that has raised her since she was a baby orphaned during the war. Before she does, though, the Mother Superior has something she should know: Anna has an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), and although she declined repeated attempts at contact, it would be wrong for Anna to not meet her. So she goes to the city, where she soon learns that there is one more crucial bit of information the nuns have kept from her: That she was born Ida Lebenstein, to Jewish parents. And while Wanda is initially dismissive, she soon decides to help Anna find her parents' graves.

Ida takes place in the Poland of the early 1960s, and it looks like it might have been shot then, as well: It's black and white and decidedly not widescreen, with the camera tending to stay rooted in place for the duration of a shot. It's an unconventional choice today, but it allows director Pawel Pawlikowski and his cinematographers (Lukasz Zal replaced Ryszard Lenczewski after ten days due to illness) to not just use the layout to communicate with the viewer, but to encourage him or her to peer at it and suss out the meaning: All that vertical room will often be used to make the characters seem small and close to the ground, for instance, or a long shot will silently show Anna moving closer to Wanda rather than their guide. Characters who have been standing right in the middle of the frame will suddenly become visible as they move into different light, and the way they bounce inside of Wanda's car will indicate turmoil. The final shot, one of the few times when the camera moves along with the characters, has night falling and captures the fading of the light exquisitely. There isn't a single shot that merely seems like the easiest way to show what is happening, but none that prioritize composition over clear storytelling. This is exactly what the people with the camera are supposed to do, and it's seldom done better.

The folks in front of the camera are carrying their end just as well. The audience never gets to see Wanda as the woman to be feared that we're told she once was, but even as the present-day version of the character can seem worn down, Agata Kulesza lets us see the faint shadow of "Red Wanda" throughout. It's a wobbly performance in the best way, with this particular episode in Wanda's life bringing forth both tendencies toward harshness and alcohol-fueled despair, but also a lot of moments where she's passing through a state where she could just be a good woman with a lot to offer. Kulesza captures both Wanda's enjoyment of that state and a sadness that it probably can't last, especially now.

Agata Trzebuchowska, meanwhile, plays Anna as having a certain sort of serenity that comes from knowing that she has a calling and a purpose but without the sense of detachment or sense of superiority that often accompanies it. It's trickier than it looks; the film is filled with moments where the audience thinks that this is the moment she gets visibly upset - how could she not? - but instead Trzebuchowska gets us to believe that, even if Anna is shaken or horrified, she can handle this. And yet, with all that, she's able to come off as a sweet and self-aware young woman who is kind of fumbling with the idea that she's met a boy she likes. She and Kulesza manage to convince us that these two strangers connect as family quickly, and she also plays well against Dawid Ogrodnik as Lis, a musician the women find hitchhiking. Jerzy Trela and Adam Szyszkowski both turn in fine performances as the men who may know something of the fate of Ida's parents, as well.

Pawlikowski and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz tell the story in fine, straightforward fashion - no cheating with flashbacks, no showing the audience something that Wanda and Anna wouldn't see. Along with editor Jaroslaw Kaminski, whose job is possibly no less crucial despite the film's tendency to stick with a shot, they set a steady pace with only one or two odd blips - steady enough that even when the film seems to keep going for a while after its seeming conclusion, the audience is unlikely to lose patience.

Indeed, some of those latter scenes are among the film's most fascinating; once the mystery is solved, Pawlikowski et al are able to take an even closer look at what gives a person purpose, whether it be family, religion, service to the nation, or something like art and music. Some will ring hollow, some will have a pull that others cannot understand. There's a sense that family is naturally the most important, but is treated too casually, whether by those like Lis who take it for granted or by Wanda and Anna, who have been without it for so long.

It's worth chewing on, and there a sense that Pawlikowski wants you to do so, building "Ida" to demand close attention and rewarding the viewer who looks closer. There's not a moment in it that's not impressive, and when all those great scenes are pulling in the same direction, you wind up with one exceptional film.

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