Ida is definitely not a film for everyone. It is made with some heavily European artistic direction, relying on minimalist dialogue and visual cues to drive the story along, leaving some scenes as abstractions that are heavily subject to audience interpretation. If you like a bit more narrative handholding, Ida may be a bit intimidating to decipher. However, with that in mind, is Ida a good film? Yeah, I’d say so; it’s easy to see why this film made the Shortlist for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film award this year. Though its appeal is far from universal, Ida is worth a look for its resonant themes and gorgeous cinematography at the very least.
In 1960s Poland, Anna is a nun-in-training on the cusp of donning the habit and resigning her life to stay in the convent forever. Before she can do so, she must visit her family, the only surviving member of which is her Aunt Wanda, an alcoholic judge who was heavily involved in the Stalinist regime as a prosecutor responsible for sentencing millions to die. Wanda reveals to Anna that Anna's real name is Ida Lebenstein, the daughter of two Jews who were murdered during World War II. The two set off together to find Anna’s parents’ remains and give them a proper burial. In essence, this is the most depressing buddy road movie imaginable, entirely devoid of levity or relief.
The dark tone is rather the point of it all though, as Anna and Wanda’s clashing personalities not only serve to accentuate their differences, but how much the two see themselves in each other. Anna grew up in the convent, and despite her judgmental attitude of Wanda’s behavior seems curious of the outside world. Wanda, on the other hand, drinks heavily in order to assuage her guilt for being responsible for so many deaths, and wishes she had the sort of innocence Anna has retained through her isolation. Their differences mirror one another, impacting them in ways that lead to a shocking climax for both characters.
The film itself is shot in a nostalgic 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white, giving the film a rustic, classic-era feeling that is appropriate given the time period. Given the film's themes of duality, the aesthetic heavily accentuates the blacks and whites of the sets and costumes, making the various shades of gray pop out and demand recognition of their symbolic importance. Furthermore, director Paweł Pawlikowski has a stunning eye for composition, with each of his stationary frames feeling like a Pulitzer-worthy photograph.
I liked Ida, and I think that it is a strong contender for its Foreign Language Oscar this year. As of this writing, I’m unsure if I will have the opportunity to see any of its contenders, but if Ida were to pull through, I would have no complaints.