The best thing about Ida is that it is set in the real world. That may seem like a strange reason to get excited about a movie, but at this point in film history, when it's nearly impossible to distinguish a real animal (or a real person) from the expert handiwork of a team of computer-aided technicians, a shot of an actual cobblestone street in an actual village trumps an Autobot riding a metal dinosaur every time. And I like the Transformers movies.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski, cinematographers Ryszard Lenczweski and Lukasz Zal, production designers Marcel Slawinski and Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska, and everyone else who contributes to Ida's look and feel are so mindful of and sensitive to the place where their story is set that, instead of writing about things like plot and characterization, it seems more useful and helpful to list all the incidental stuff of life caught onscreen that tends to knock the story and its formidable female leads off-course.
Chickens, peeling paint, snowflakes, dirt roads, morning mist, leafless trees, powerlines, mud, thatched rooftops, staircases, party lights, water, curtains, vinyl records, bottles of vodka, and mounds of dirt are as important as either chapter of this two-part historical drama. The first and longest part concerns a young nun-to-be named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who meets up with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) shortly before she takes her vows. First, Wanda disorients her niece by saying, "So you're a Jewish nun." Second, she tells Anna that her name is actually Ida. Third, Wanda takes Anna/Ida along on a mission to recover the rest of their family history.
Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida is shot in the more box-like 1.37:1 aspect ratio commonly used in movies released prior to the arrival of Cinemascope in 1954. But through careful staging and lighting, Pawlikowski's shots feel both wider and deeper than conventional, rectangular widescreen imagery. Many shots are designed with subtle textural contrasts and heightened by the tableau-like immobility of a stationary camera recording one or two slowly moving figures. (Ida herself often seems to peek out from the bottom of the frame like a holy tortoise.) One fabulously naturalistic framing follows another, and most of the time the impulse to mock such solemn, planned-out suppleness recedes as soon as it surfaces.
Like fellow indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, Pawlikowski is equally interested in the sounds of the world. The film's close attention to the noises of human activity — whether eating, praying, or exhuming human remains — often impart suspense and a kind of secular grace to the business onscreen.
The big/small, soft/loud, light/dark fluctuations in sound and image gradually start to dramatize the tension between Ida's spiritual aspirations and her physical existence. In the film's second movement, Ida decides to explore the world she's about to give up for life in the convent — an exploration that begins when she hears a young saxophonist's rendition of John Coltrane's "Naima" in a hotel bar.
This gorgeous, quietly sexy and autumnal movie about rebirth is one of the summer's must-see films.
Studio on the Square