Movie Review: Ida
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novitiate in a cloistered Polish convent when, a week before she is to take her vows, she is called into the office of her Mother Superior. There she is told that before she becomes a nun, she must meet with her only surviving relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a former public prosecutor who is now a judge. Anna reluctantly agrees, only to be told by Wanda that she is actually a Jewish orphan named Ida Lebenstein, whose parents were killed during World War II. Given to an orphanage, she has been raised as a Catholic.
Now Anna/Ida must decide who she really is and what life she wants to pursue. Determined to track down what happened to her family, she and Wanda embark on a journey to the village where the Lebensteins lived. There they discover that the Polish family that initially sheltered her parents during the war eventually murdered them for their property.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski has taken a real historic tragedy – the violence directed toward some Polish Jews returning from death camps and trying to reclaim their property after World War II – and personalized it in the characters of Anna/Ida and Wanda. He has also gone out of his way to show this episode as it affects two wildly different people. Anna/Ida, with her big, round eyes and meek affect, is otherworldly and almost totally oblivious about what has gone before, while Wanda is an obviously troubled woman who drinks too much, sleeps around, and prefers to think of herself as a good Socialist, rather than a good Jew.
But Pawlikowski undercuts all this, and leaches much of the emotion out of the movie, because of the rigidity of his filmmaking. Shot in black and white, with almost no camera movement and very little dialogue, “Ida” looks very much as if it were a 1960s film made by Polish masters Roman Polanski (“Knife In the Water”) or Andrezj Wajda (“Ashes and Diamonds”). Since “Ida” is set in the ’60s, this visual scheme seems appropriate, but the slow pacing and abundance of pregnant pauses make this 80-minute production seem longer than it really is.
There is also a problem with the character of Anna/Ida, who, as played by Trzebuchowska, is not only an innocent – she has, after all, been raised in a cloistered community – but so quiet and generally emotionless she comes off as nearly catatonic. It is, in fact, almost a shock when she reacts emotionally to a John Coltrane number she hears being played by a jazz group at a hotel where she and Wanda are staying. Contrasted with the volatile Wanda, who protests against the death of her family in a dramatic, and shocking, way, Anna/Ida is a cipher. And at the end, when she returns to the convent, it seems that instead of growing as a person, she has learned absolutely nothing from her trip to the outside world.