In a age where black and white films are considered ancient relics of a bygone era, some of us might confuse the lack of colour with a lack of vibrancy. Set in a bleak post WWII Poland, Ida provides a strong case that black and white films can not only be engaging but also visually visceral. In Ida, absence of colour resonates well with the bleak imagery and tone, actually making the film more stark in its portrayal of the deathly effects of the German Occupation. Let me assure you, black and white in Ida is never boring; Only all the more powerful. Ida’s unique style feels 1940’s authentic, you probably won’t find a something like that for a long time.
The Polish film opens with Anna who’s a young nun who is told that she needs to visit her only living relative,her aunt, before she can take her vows. Anna later finds out her real name is Ida Lebenstein (Agata Trzebuchowska) and that she’s born a Jew. Her Aunt Wanda reveals to her that she’s an orphan, and her parents died during the German Occupation. Later, they decide to find out where Ida’s parents are buried, and the two set off on a kind of road trip. The journey in search of truth reveal in subtle ways, the interesting and ‘eccentric’ relationship between Ida and Wanda. Ida as you’ll see, is almost expressionless if not for her very slight acial gestures. Her calm exterior hides her inner id, and this will prove to be a conflict which will become unavoidable later on. Wanda, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Ida. She drinks, smokes, and has casual sex frequently. Pretty impressive for her age. Anyways, with both of them grasping on to the other as the only family left, the idea of harmony and family force them both to compromise. This in my view, sets up the first important human lesson that Ida learns outside the confines of the religious monastery; Compromise instead of strict moral codes.
Later Ida and Wanda meet Lis, a saxophone player whom Wanda tries to get her interested in. Again, Ida likes Lis, but resists the ‘worldy’ temptations and carnal pleasures. They both go to see the house Ida and parents used to live which is now occupied by Felix Skiba and family. Felix explains that he actually hid her family from the Nazis, but also killed them sometime later. He put Ida, then an infant, in the care of the convent because she was able to pass as a christian. The exact motive is not explicitly stated, but historical evidence might suggest jeopardising themselves by hiding Jews, or simply for material assets. This revelation proves too great for the self-destructive Wanda (Agata Kusleza). In a very deliberate scene, you’ll see that Ida copes with loss the same way as Wanda does, by smoking and drinking for the first time. Several scenes following this mark Ida’s transformative journey in a fallen world. Like her letting her hair down for the first time, the sense of liberation in her expression suggests that shifting to the world outside the religious narrative might actually be good for her.
I’m torn over the ending. One part of me feels that with all the worldy complications that Ida is entangled in, she has to somehow find a way to face up to reality’s challenges, instead of trying to suppress it. However, what she decides to do might actually be the only course of healing in this fallen world. Nevertheless, Pawel Pawlikowski’s vision for the film has remained largely consistent and credit should be given for such an unapologetic depiction of WWII’s effects on the Jews and the Polish community. There are moments where scenes remain still for quite some time, fully soaking in the gravitas of the moment. Landscapes of barren land and forests emphasize the grim historical feel, and the isolation that haunts the characters. Ultimately, Ida’s smart use of black and white, style of directing, and two intricately complex characters make it one of the best foreign movies this year.
Let me know what you think!