Ida: After war, a search for identity and faith

Heba El-Sherif, Thursday 27 Nov 2014

Shot in black and white, Pawel Pawlikowski's drama is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II


In Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, two women, an aunt and her niece, snake through roads and strangers’ homes in the Polish countryside, searching for clues about the young woman's dead parents.

Set in Poland in the 1960s, Ida takes us to a war-torn landscape where the buildings were once targets and an eerie silence fills the streets, and where recalling the violence revives aches in the hearts of both the perpetrators and the survivors. Such is the tragedy of war – very few are spared the torment.

Although blood-related, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) come from distinctly different backgrounds. Ida is a soon-to-be nun who was raised in a convent away from her family, and Wanda, a former state prosecutor, is now a judge with a drinking problem.

Together, they set out to discover their independent futures, but their journey proves that dealing with the aftermath of war entails unearthing the past, exploring some of the atrocities Polish Jews endured during World War II.

Like the training habit she wears, Ida is stiff, her reactions minimal and calculated. Her eyes, however, are always wandering, suggesting that even though she is set on taking her vows, a sacrifice from which she cannot turn back, the allures of life that are stirred by her aunt breed intrigue, which she allows.

In a sense, the film affirms that even neophyte saints have sinful urges, and choosing to explore them is part of their journey to sainthood.

Wanda, however, is resentful of life and often of her own actions. Her deepest resentment stems from the fact that she served in the government that allowed the death of her sister. As she struggles to abide by an authority that not so long ago tore her family apart, viewers recognise the difficulties and uncertainties that cloud life after war.

It is a story of loss, faith and finding one’s identity, notions that easily transcend the borders of Poland.

Pawlikowski delivers Ida in black and white, lending the movie a haunting air that fits perfectly with the plot. The resulting images are a succession of square-shaped frames, with minimal intervention from props and almost no shifting angles.

The cinematography in Ida is meticulous, standing out as its strongest element. The stories of Ida and Wanda unravel against a somewhat reserved backdrop, which is fitting for the communist bloc era. The two women journey through cold and hollow streets; the weather is always gloomy, and the bare trees seems to be waiting t o be revived. 

The dialogue, which Pawlikowski co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is made up of short, cold sentences. Like the picture, the script is colourless. Again, Pawlikowski has aptly extracted from the rigor of communism and the reluctance of discussing trauma, even among family members.      

A fervent soundtrack accompanies Ida from start to finish, with live performances in a jazz bar intermittently colliding with the plot. The sound of engines starting, cups landing on tables and footsteps tapping on wooden floors are accentuated throughout the film. Every movement is utilised as if to silence the inner turmoil of the characters.

It is difficult to think that this film was made in 2013. Watching Ida is like looking through an old album of family portraits, where the smiles are firm and the clothes are identical, a moving journey that leaves the viewer haunted by the rigidity of display and memories of what could have been.

Ida will screen again on Saturday 29 November at 1pm at Galaxy Cinema. 

Check the full programme of the Panorama of the European Film and our recommendations.

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