Film Review: Ida

This most unlikely and sober of road films is singularly affecting and, most vitally, a reminder of the true glory of black-and-white cinematography.

In many ways, Ida is like a weird time-warp return to that 1950s-60s glory period of Eastern European cinema, with its stark atmosphere and story, meditative pacing and, most vitally, crisp black-and-white cinematography which here utilizes the old box-shaped 1.33 aspect ratio with consummate beauty.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has made the most sober of road movies, featuring a young woman, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), about to take her vows as a nun, who meets up with her one living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Hard-drinking, cynical Wanda, a public prosecutor who was nicknamed "Red Wanda" for the many people she sent to their deaths during Communist purges, brusquely informs Anna that she is Jewish, of all things. Poor Anna barely has time to digest this before they set out to find where her parents and brother, given shelter by a farming family but murdered during World War II, are buried.

Innocent, devout Anna and the bawdy, drunken Wanda are an odd couple indeed, and much of this disarming film's mordant, deadpan humor stems from their fractious interaction with each other. Non-believer Wanda is all too bent on seducing her niece into worldly, hopefully carnal ways, but Anna's virtue proves one staunchly impenetrable bulwark.

Pawlikowski obviously has an understated yet deep affection for these women which makes his film glow warmly, even given its harsh premise and settings. Also definitely glowing is the magnificently composed cinematography of Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, which finds soul-satisfying beauty in the most seemingly banal of surroundings: A roadside shrine at a highway crossroads, a jazz-infused yet sad little nightclub, even the peeling plaster of village buildings prove visually ravishing. It's an absolutely essential part of the whole, a far—and far better—chiaroscuro cry from the black-and-white photography of something like The Artist, which was little more than rote period gimmickry.

Kulzsa creates a fascinating portrait of the ultimate been-there/done-that woman, taking refuge in booze and bad attitude to counteract the effects of a life she sees as nothing more than the ultimate dead end. She's the kind of person you wouldn't want to be around for more than five minutes, yet it’s funny how such characters, when rendered right onscreen, are so weirdly irresistible as we wait for their next dark outrage. Trzebuchowska has the less flamboyant part, yet there's a lot of shrewd slyness in her performance, and her Anna is anything but a dull little plaster saint. She's sorely tempted by the attentions of a handsome saxophonist (David Ogrodnik) she meets at that aforementioned nightclub, and their fleeting courtship has a delicate charm. The singer in his band is played by Joanna Kulig, who lends some much-needed eye candy and glamour to the proceedings. You really care about these people, and given the truly foreign and basically grim nature of their story, that is no small achievement indeed.

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