The road movie has a long history in film, veering off in different directions, depending on whether the particular story told is at times heartfelt (Little Miss Sunshine), empowering (Thelma and Louise), or soul-searching (Nebraska).
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida greatly enriches the canon of road movies. With its Oscar-nominated, breathtaking black and white cinematography, by Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski, incredibly fine acting, and woeful, affecting story, Ida is most certainly well deserving of its Oscar nominations it could likely win at this evening’s Academy Awards.
The story is that of a young novitiate nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) living in Poland in the 1960s. Before she is able to take her final vows to become a fully professed nun, her mother superior informs her that she is to go stay for awhile with her aunt and solely remaining relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). Wanda is a hard-living judge, who most certainly has not led an easy life. She is shown to be a promiscuous woman whose body is worn from years of smoking and drinking, and she has seen the darker side of humanity in her day. She takes Anna in readily and though she may not readily, outwardly show it, it’s clear she cares for the girl, wishing her well as her beloved niece, and also, she takes no time in getting to the point of the story, evincing details of Anna’s history.
It is uncloaked that Anna’s real name is Ida Lebenstein. Her parents were Jews who had been murdered, thus orphaning Ida, who had been taken under the wing of the nuns and raised as a Catholic following World War II. During this time, Wanda had worked as a Communist judge, prosecuting war criminals. This history is briefly alluded to via flashbacks, but not in great detail. It’s tough to get an exact hold on the character of Wanda. She is tragic and enigmatic in her manner and does not let on what she may be truly thinking or feeling, but in this way, she is a fascinating, worldly foil to Ida’s innocent, demure way.
The two embark on their journey together, seeking details of Ida’s past and the truth to their family’s history. The film does take sufficient time delivering details, yet characters are brought in and out of the story tersely and with distinguished matter-of-factness. The pacing and structure of the film is edited with purposeful exactitude, and its 82-minute runtime breezes by almost in a flash, but without ever feeling hurried or rushed.
Wanda wishes for Ida to experience a bit of the seedier side of life before she is to take her vows, so along their journey she picks up a hitchhiker named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), but Ida shows little to no interest in following suit with Wanda’s game, at least, not at this point in the story.
Side storylines such as this serve their purpose well, as the appalling atrocities of the events that occurred during the war need balancing in being told, in order to more fully enlighten the viewer in a more well-rounded fashion. The film does not hold back on the grotesque, but nor does it ever aim to needlessly shock or wantonly traumatize its audience.
Wanda and Ida make their way to the home in which Ida was born, as their mission is to find the bodies of Ida’s parents, give them a proper burial, and learn the truth about their deaths. Living there currently is a Pole named Feliks Skiba (Adam Szyszkowski), whom Wanda had left to look after the Lebensteins years ago. Feliks at first appears to be a favorable help in their uncovering of the past, but his intentions reveal themselves to be far less than savory, and his role in their past turns out to be alarmingly gruesome.
To reveal any further developments would be to give away the meat of this tender story’s twists and turns, and that is better left to be discovered by viewers on their own, as this rich and richly-drawn film is something of a little masterpiece. Its screenplay by Paweł Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is written with carefully edited exactitude, as the characters never say anything that doesn’t need to be said. It has a distinctly Polish feel, and it draws the viewer into the film with great anticipation and curiosity as to where the story will lead. The movie is sparse on any kind of frills, and it is all the better for it, as it greatly benefits from this straightforward style of filmmaking.
Ida is truly one not to be missed.
4.5 out of 5 stars.