January 4, 2015

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun in 1960s Poland, sets out to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) prior to taking her vows, who tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her Jewish parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of World War ll. Ida and her aunt embark upon a trip to discover the truth about the Lebenstein family and the real circumstances of their deaths.

The Critics Said

“We are so used to constant movement and compulsive cutting in American movies that the stillness of the great new Polish film “Ida” comes as something of a shock. I can’t recall a movie that makes such expressive use of silence and portraiture.” – David Denby, The New Yorker, 2014


IdaCountry: Poland, Denmark
Language: Polish, Latin, French
Year: 2013
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Writers: Paweł Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska
Runtime: 82 minutes

Our View

Filmed in beautiful monochrome evocative of Béla Tarr’s best work (Sátántangó, 1994; The Turin Horse, 2011), Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest, Ida, is an understated, serene exploration of faith and sin, both past and present. It tells the story of ‘Anna’ (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun in 1960s Poland who, prior to taking her vows, sets out to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her Jewish parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of World War ll. Ida and her aunt embark upon a trip to discover the truth about the Lebenstein family and the real circumstances of their deaths.

In an interview with Collider Pawlikowski comments on the striking visual style of Ida, stating that his aim was to make it ‘a meditation about life, about faith, about all sorts of things.’ Shot entirely in black and white and with barely any camera movement, the film is very tranquil, particularly in the opening section at Ida’s convent. One scene shows the nuns at their dinner, the silence oppressive, the only sound their spoons ringing upon their dishes like a chorus of miniature church bells. It becomes apparent later in the film that Wanda’s influence lingers upon Ida when this scene is revisited and Ida has to stifle her giggles at the overbearing formality of the dinner. Elsewhere in the film the dialogue is sparse and in the absence of camera movement we are left to interpret the action without the influence of a mobile, subjective point-of-view. The film is shot with a 1.37 aspect ratio (with black vertical borders), a distinctly period visual format, and in many of the shots the characters only occupy a small portion of the frame, patterns of the environment providing much of the compositional material in the spaces between their bodies. Crucifixes, inherently loaded with symbolic meaning, are used here too but in an intriguingly subtle way. Ida herself is often shot with a crucifix above her head, ordinary in the context of the film, but there are moments where the cruciform is not immediately apparent. Look again at the spaces between objects: the pattern of the tiles when she comforts her distressed aunt; the joints of window frames. What does this mean to us? It feels like the motif appears too often to be coincidence. Perhaps it’s a discreet reminder that however far from her vows Ida seems she functions in the context of her religion, resulting in the ultimate decision she makes at the end of the film.

Ida and her aunt are perfect opposites, the former resolute in her faith, the latter depressed at her lack of faith in anything, divine or mundane. Both women and their attitudes, however, are formed from their experiences, impelled by the legacy of their family secret. It is initially Wanda’s desire for closure which prompts her to tell Ida of her real identity and at first we’re not sure why. Wanda gradually opens up to Ida but despite encouragement from her aunt, Ida by and large remains aloof. The contrast between the characters is matched by the actresses cast in the roles. On the one hand Agata Kulesza (Wanda) has over twenty years’ experience of the Polish film industry and in 2012 won the Polish Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Wojciech Smarzowski’s Rose (Róza, 2011). Agata Trzebuchowska, however, is making her debut here, discovered by Paweł Pawlikowski in a café after he struggled to find a suitable actress for the role of Ida. A firm atheist and committed student when she first met Pawlikowski, Trzebuchowska was initially reluctant to take up the role. Her performance in Ida is subtle, the slightest changes in Ida’s expression often the only indication of the emotion behind her otherwise composed demeanour. This seems to madden Wanda, who is unable to generate the same level of candour in Ida which she herself offers to her niece. In one episode, after arriving drunk to the hotel room they share Wanda finally manages to aggravate Ida to anger by mocking her religious soberness. ‘What a beast came out,’ Wanda exclaims upon Ida’s reaction. This may be a turning point for Ida as following this she meets Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a suave saxophone player who has the potential to disrupt her religious commitment.

Plot development in Ida is gradual and requires some inference on the part of the viewer as there is little exposition from the characters to fill in the blanks. There are, however, several scenes in the film around which the plot pivots and through which the viewer learns a little more of the Lebenstein story. These scenes, while not graphic in any way, are shocking because of their stillness, difficult subject matter related to us through the indifference of the fixed camera. These mostly revolve around Wanda; from the start the quest to discover the truth about their family is hers above all. She is ridden with guilt, which she tries to soothe – or forget – through drinking. We learn of her nickname, ‘Red Wanda,’ due to her time as a prosecutor of Polish anti-communist soldiers, some of whom she sentenced to death. We start to get the uneasy feeling that all of these legacies are linked through Wanda’s guilt; there is clearly something for which she can’t forgive herself. The prospect is as bleak as Pawlikowski’s monochrome landscapes but, like Ida in its entirety, it is handled with sensitivity and distinction.


More by Paweł Pawlikowski

Last ResortLast Resort (2000) – Shot in colour but of a similar narrative austerity to Ida, Pawlikowski’s second feature again focusses on a character facing a transition of identity and an entirely new culture to go with it. Dina Korzun plays a young Russian mother who arrives in London with her son, expecting to meet her boyfriend. When he doesn’t show Dina requests asylum and the film subsequently explores the difficulties of a life in cultural limbo.

More about Al Burton

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