Ida is a work that I found to be entirely deserving of its 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; it is concise in plot, emotionally restrained yet resonant in tone, and absolutely beautiful from frame to frame.
Set in Poland in the 1950s, Ida depicts several days in the life of a young woman named Anna who never knew her family, was raised in a convent, and has spent her entire life there. As she prepares to take vows and become a nun at the convent, the Mother Superior tells Anna that she must go into the world and meet her only surviving relative — a woman named Wanda Gruz, her mother’s sister. When they meet, Wanda reveals to Anna that she is Jewish, that her family was murdered during the German occupation of Poland, and that her name was Ida before she was delivered to the convent as an infant. The impact of these realizations leads Anna and Wanda on a journey that deeply affects both of their lives.
Clocking in at just 82 minutes, the film is masterful in the way that it uses every second to its full advantage. No moment seems wasted, and no scene seems irrelevant to the deepening of the viewer’s understanding of these two women. The film even leaves out certain moments of significant emotional intensity and decides just to imply them, but even those implications are moving. Perhaps because of this strategy, the film is also able to sneak up on the viewer and deliver surprising and heart-rending moments — two in particular that are completely earned, but still very startling.
What is also startling is the utter beauty that characterizes director Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest work. Any film enthusiast who mistakenly believes that a movie cannot be gorgeous in black and white must immediately sit with Ida. The camera work certainly cannot be called ambitious, but it is steady and consistent and allows the actors and scenery to take precedence instead of distracting from them. Speaking of the actors, both Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna and Agata Kulesza as Wanda turn in very strong performances in entirely different ways. Kulesza is repeatedly successful in conveying the duality of Wanda’s fieriness and vulnerability throughout the film, while Trzebuchowska — forced to employ great restraint as a woman on the verge of sisterhood — still reveals great emotional depth in techniques as seemingly insignificant as a stare or the movement of a hand.
Ida’s themes are bleak, and no catharsis for the audience is ever explicitly offered. Even through this dark lens of suffering, though, the more heartening notions of vitality and dedication are ever-apparent, and the film succeeds on a number of emotional levels.