Ida Review

Poland, the early 1960s. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun who had been raised as an orphan in a convent. About to take her vows, she is ordered by her Mother Superior to visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), whom she had not met before. Wanda, a judge and former Party member, tells Anna that she is not who she thought she was: her real name is actually Ida Lebenstein and she is Jewish...

Paweł Pawlikowski was born in Warsaw but relocated to the UK in his teens. He began his filmmaking career in documentary and on television, with one feature-length film for the BBC (The Stringer, 1998) before making an impressive big-screen debut with Last Resort in 2000 and following it with the also impressive My Summer of Love in 2004. There was a period of silence – a 2006 film, The Restraint of Beasts had to be abandoned due to the illness and death of his wife – broken by in 2011 by The Woman in the Fifth (which I haven't seen). Ida is his first feature made in his native Poland. Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz originally wrote the script in English, then Pawlikowski rewrote it in Polish, which is the language spoken in the film.

At its heart, Ida is a story of an identity which is reshaped by the events of the story. Part of that is due to religious faith, which Anna maintains despite the jaded, worldy-wise cynicism of her aunt, a woman given to drink, chainsmoking and brief liaisons with young men. It's as if Anna's faith, and her virginity, are an affront to her, and early on she asks Anna if she has never had sex, how does she know what she is sacrificing by taking her vows? However, during a journey where Wanda takes Anna back to the village where Ida's parents lived, they follow a trail which leads to the discovery of what happened to them during the War (and why Ida, then a baby, survives as Anna) and a ghastly secret is revealed.

Agata Trzebuchowska had not acted before she was cast in the lead role, but she gives a fine performance, with Pawlikowski and his DPs (Łukasz Żal taking over from Ryszard Lenczewski, who had to leave for medical reasons, in mid-production, with both credited) making much of simple facial close-ups. Agata Kulesza, by contrast, has a film career going back to 1993, in the cinema and television, regularly appearing in lead roles and character parts, but so far not outside Poland. Hopefully this role may bring her to an audience wider than a Polish one (or anyone who keeps up with Polish cinema): as Wanda, a lifetime of disappointment and self-loathing is etched on her face and in her body language, but she's not so far gone as to be unable to make a connection with her niece. As Lis, a young jazz musician they meet on their journey, Dawid Ogrodnik is effective if self-effacing, clearly aware that the film belongs to the two women. This was his third film, and he had had plenty of opportunities to be centre-stage playing a man with cerebral palsy in his second, Life Feels Good.

What is immediately noticeable is the formal rigour of Pawlikowski's direction. He places characters low down in the frame, or in a corner, as if the characters' environment – either natural, in the form of overcast skies, or man-made, as in architecture, is bearing down upon them. The camera is stationary until the very end of the film, with the final two shots being the only moving ones, a tracking shot followed by a handheld one, marking a point where Anna/Ida has determined her course in life. Although it was shot digitally instead of in 35mm, Ida harks back visually to the films made in Poland at the time. It's in black and white, with only a single reference to colour, to the red of Anna's hair. It also uses the Academy Ratio (1.37:1) which had become largely obsolete in the USA and Western Europe in favour of wider ratios, but in Poland was still being used along with those wider ratios. (Compare, if you will, Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds, made in 1958 in 1.66:1, with his 1960 Innocent Sorcerers, made in 1.37:1.) Academy Ratio has had a mini revival in recent years, with digital cinema projection making it more viable for commercial cinemas to show, something Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt (in Meek's Cutoff) and now Pawlikowski have taken advantage of. |Ida evokes its period in other ways: a country during a post-Stalinist "thaw", where some Western influences were allowed, and western music, particularly jazz, was seen by many as a symbol of liberation. While there's little non-diegetic music on the soundtrack, there's quite a bit of the diegetic variety, in particular several numbers from a jazz band in a club, played live in the film.

Ida premiered at the 2013 Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, winning Best Film, Actress (Agata Kulesza), Cinematography and Production Design (Katarzyna Sobańska and Marcel Sławiński) It arrived on UK release trailing a large number of festival awards, including Best Film at the 2013 London Film Festival (Nick Chen's review is here). At the time of writing, it is Poland's entry for the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. It's certainly one of the films of the year.


The Disc

Ida is released by Artificial Eye on Blu-ray and DVD. It was the latter which was supplied for review on a checkdisc, and ratings below and affiliate links above refer to that edition. For affiliate links for the DVD, go here.

As mentioned above, Ida was shot digitally, on the Arri Alexa, and is presented in the intended 1.37:1 ratio in black and white. (As with another recent monochrome film shot on the Alexa, Nebraska, the data is available if anyone has the bad taste to insist on a colour version. Black and white all the way.) The Alexa captures at a resolution of 2.8K and the Blu-ray picks up all the fine detail that I saw in my two cinema viewings. I may be getting old and be a celluloid diehard, but it is possible for digitally-shot films to look beautiful, and in its austere way Ida is one of them.

The soundtrack is is DTS-HA MA 5.1, but it's not one to show off your sound system with, as it's close to monophonic, with the surrounds used barely used. The subwoofer helps out a little with the jazz band's basslines, but otherwise doesn't feature much. The dialogue is always clear and well balanced. Other than some Latin chants by the nuns (left unsubtitled) that dialogue is entirely in Polish. English subtitles are optional. In the cinema, in three scenes, the subtitles became surtitles, to avoid covering up actors' faces very low down on screen, but on this Blu-ray they stay at the bottom of the screen throughout. (That was the case in UK cinemas at least: my first viewing, in October 2013, was of an English-subtitled DCP in Warsaw, and I don't remember if the subtitles were repositioned there.)

The only extra is the theatrical trailer (1:55).

9 out of 10
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out of 10

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