Winner of the London Film Festival’s official competition and of the Critics’ Prize in Toronto, Paweł Pawlikowski’s beautiful, soulful film, Ida, is a wonderfully simple story in which Anna, a nun-in-waiting, goes out to find her heritage before committing to the convent. Yet another beautiful black-and-white film in 2013, Ida explores post-WWII in Pawlikowski’s native Poland, where the titular character discovers she is in fact Jewish, named Ida and, unbeknownst to her, she is a war-torn orphan and thus goes in search for answers and closure for her newly-discovered family.
Ida’s triumph is that it is a film that reminds one of the simple pleasures a truly great film can produce. There’s a wonderfully natural feel about it, the film encompasses beautiful cinematography in a perpetually foggy Polish countryside, brilliant performances, especially from Ida’s maverick judge auntie Wanda (Agata Kulesza), and a wonderful, diegetic soundtrack which ensures the piece maintains its atmosphere.
World-weary Wanda takes on the impressionable Ida to show and protect her from her past. Kulesza is brilliant as the ex-authoritarian commissioner during the Soviet days, now a withered, fiery drunk who is more emotionally unstable than her steely veneer lets on. The opposition of Wanda and Ida drives the film in this nostalgic, monochromatic road-movie, much like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is brilliant in the leading role, going from shy and sheltered girl to a fully realised woman over the course of the reasonably short runtime (80 minutes) in a vital moment in Ida’s life. Over the course, she goes from knowing nothing of the outside world to experiencing art, in the form of the young Jazz band playing at the hotel she stays at with her auntie, love with an attractive band member (Dawid Ogrodnik), who hitches a ride with the pair and introduces them to John Coltrane, and inevitable loss.
For a debut performance, Trzebuchowska shines in her role, taking on the familiar coming-of-age arc with the subtle and subdued nature of a saint. Her chemistry with Ogrodnik, in their young, belated adolescent romance, sparkles in their brief screen time together with Pawlikowski breaking the film’s established form through music and visual inflections.
Ultimately, it is a treasure of a film for all its delicacies, embracing both a celebration of life and melancholia for it. Ida’s coming of age is akin to an entire nation’s, as Pawlikowski allegorically lays out Poland’s quietly aggressive issues with Catholicism, anti-Semitism and the communist state while in recovery from a damaging war. We learn as much about Poland’s pervading feelings of intimidation here as we do Ida’s, as both come to terms with a difficult, harrowing past.