Tragedy hangs like smoke over this spectral, startling return to form for Polish-born, British-based writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski. First and foremost, there’s the historical tragedy of The Holocaust which drives the story. But there’s also, it seems, a pervasive, underlying layer of personal tragedy: it doesn’t feel like a stretch to place ‘Ida’ alongside, say, Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ and Elem Klimov’s ‘Come and See’, films haunted by the loss of a spouse and a subsequent darkening in the filmmaker’s view of the world.
First-timer Agata Trzebuchowska is quietly compelling in the title role of an apprentice nun who, on the eve of taking her final vows, leaves the convent for the first time to track down her last surviving relative. But Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) isn’t exactly what Ida was expecting: she’s Jewish, alcoholic, a bed-hopper, and a ruthless court justice whose once-powerful standing in the Soviet regime of early ’60s Poland is slowly but inexorably waning.
‘Ida’ is a film built of snapshots: few scenes run longer than a minute or two and the dialogue is sparse and functional, in stark contrast to Pawlikowski’s poetic earlier works like ‘My Summer of Love’. In addition, the painterly, painstakingly composed camera angles are all self-consciously ‘off’, with faces and bodies confined to corners of the empty, TV-square frame.
The effect is somewhere between incredible beauty and mounting discomfort: a direct reflection of how sheltered Ida views the strange, terrifying world she’s thrust into. And as the story unfolds, as the outrages pile up like corpses, it’s impossible not to be thrown in there with her, standing helplessly by as life’s cruelty becomes ever more horribly apparent. Pawlikowski’s film may be bleak and unforgiving, but it’s also richly sympathetic and deeply moving.