Ida review: pure cinematic storytelling at its best

Nun of the above: Agata Kulesza in Ida

Film Title: IDA

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 82 min

Fri, Sep 26, 2014, 00:00

   

It’s Poland in the early 1960s. Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young orphan raised by Catholic nuns, leaves the convent so that she might meet her estranged next of kin before she undertakes her vows.

Ida’s aunt turns out to be a boozy, jaded, fearsomely Communist judge known as Red Wanda (Agata Kulesza).It soon transpires that Wanda’s hedonistic, hard-liquored lifestyle is a means of avoiding past traumas. Ida’s family are, or were, Jewish. Together, the two mismatched women head out on a road trip, where their efforts to discover what awful fates befell their relatives some 20 years before are met with silence, secrets and lies.

Between mostly fruitless inquiries, Ida is exposed to John Coltrane, smoky dives and the opposite gender. Will she ever return to a secluded life painting statues of Jesus? Suddenly convent life doesn’t seem quite so certain.

We have not seen nearly so much as we would have liked from the dazzlingly talented Polish-born film-maker Pawel Pawlikowski. Family tragedy forced him to abandon his 2006 adaptation of The Restraint of Beasts, having shot 60 per cent of the script with stars Ben Whishaw and Rhys Ifans. He returned in 2011 with the intriguing but underwhelming The Woman in the Fifth.

Had the academic turned auteur behind such critical wows as My Summer of Love, Serbian Epics and Moscow Pietushki (the latter two available for viewing on pawelpawlikowski.co.uk, film fans) misplaced his mojo?

Happily, Ida is not just a return to form; it’s a storming career best. The thoroughly deserving winner of Best Film at last October’s London Film Festival and Best Director at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival avoids verbosity in favour of pure cinematic storytelling. Crisp monochrome and a retro 1.37 aspect ratio – bravo, DOP Lukasz Zal – lulls the viewer into thinking that they’re watching a genuine period piece by Jerzy Skolimowski or Andrzej Wajda.

The tableaux are as elegant as the film’s structure: Ida juxtaposes socialism and religion, repression and liberation, while mining the grey spaces in between. The performances are beautifully minimal and characterised by indelible moments: the strange look of recognition that falls over Wanda’s face when she first sees her niece, and Ida’s slowly developing repertoire of facial and bodily movements.

The warming up between the two women goes some way to offsetting the attendant historical horrors and pervasive sense of menace.