The wounds of war always take a long time to heal and certainly no war in the 20th Century shows its still-festering lesions on the psyche of mankind as nakedly or as frequently as World War II. Whether tackling the depths of evil committed by the Nazis, the struggles and oppression of the Jews, or one or both sides of the brutality/heroism dichotomy of soldiers on the battlefield, the ghosts of this war have, for better or worse, haunted cinema far more than any other event in history. Wisely eschewing these more typical approaches, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida instead exhumes the concealed local and national tragedies of Poland in the mid-20th Century (in fictionalized fashion) and examines the psychic toll that more subtle forms of oppression and domination have taken on Jews and their religious and cultural identity.
Opening with a shot of the young Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), all but her face hidden behind a nun’s veil, carefully painting a statue of Christ, Ida immediately gets to the heart of the issue with its protagonist, a young nun about to take her vows who will soon learn of her Jewish heritage, inscribing her identity, quite literally, onto the demi-god (or God in the flesh, so as not to ruffle any feathers) of her enemies. Soon after placing the Christ figure in front of the convent, Anna is told that she will be visiting her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who has until this point avoided all contact with her. The bold, acerbic and frequently drunk Wanda is literally and figuratively her polar opposite — fiery and aggressive where Anna is timid and submissive. Her initial contempt for Anna and her Catholicism is quickly explained as we learn that not only was Anna’s family Jewish, but her name is really Ida, her parents are missing and were most likely murdered by their non-Jewish neighbors in the Polish countryside and their house and belongings were taken by the culprits.
For the remainder of the film, Ida and Wanda return to the family’s hometown to find and confront the men believed responsible for the aforementioned deaths and to retrieve the bones to give them a proper burial. Ida’s identity as a Catholic is strong, as she was raised in the convent since she was an infant, yet it is constantly vehemently challenged by Wanda, who we learn was once “Red Wanda,” the prosecutor of Polish officials, Russian Communists and Nazis in the 1950s and a key figure in reforming Poland after the war. The duo’s almost comical disparity is further complicated by Lis (Dawid Ogradonik), the musician who they pick up on their way to the hotel and whose presence stirs Ida in ways she has not yet experienced.
Rather than the dramatic histrionics that such a clash of figures may suggest, Pawlikawski’s approach is austere and subdued (even the romance is dealt with elegantly), capturing a sense of spiritual tranquility with a purity and economy of form that is rare outside of a Bresson or Dreyer film, yet with a political and moral fervor that this type of material demands. Its compositions are often fragmented, with close-ups capturing only a portion of Ida’s face or placing her at the very bottom of the frame as if her sense of self is dominated by the world around her while the soundtrack, only once interrupted by a brief spurt of non-diagetic sound, is wonderfully spare, the emptiness filled either with natural sounds or brief interludes of classical or jazz music (most memorably John Coltrane’s “Naima” in its most sentimental moment and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony ironically in its most tragic) played by the characters. This minimalist aesthetic is not only suitably contemplative, but allows the films dramatic moments hit with a crashing crescendo and the visceral indignation of Wanda to clash so wonderfully with the serene solemnity of Ida.
Despite the film’s brief runtime, a mere 80 minutes, Ida accrues a remarkably complex palette of emotions and, particularly in the final act, takes Ida’s subtle yet crucial transformation into surprising and interesting directions. Set in 1962, its analysis of post-post-WWII crises is also quite unique as much of its focus is not on the violence of oppression but the ways it can quickly and imperceptibly mask and bury its horrors, leaving them unseen if not for the implacability and furious persistence of people like Red Wanda. But as Ida shows us, such persistence comes at a cost — mentally, physically and spiritually — and for every Wanda, there are hundreds of people with only the energy to pick up the pieces and move on, ignoring the ghosts and leaving the dead buried where they are. Yet however small Ida and Wanda’s victory is, it registers a powerfully symbolic blow that while the Wandas of the world will always be greatly outnumbered, every chip made in the oppressor’s armor makes the world just a little bit better. Masterfully balancing its grandiose moral quandaries and its tempered human drama, Ida is the rare film of both fury and grace, in which humanity’s uncanny abilities to both destroy and heal itself are on display without a hint of either misanthropy or sentiment.