Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz & Pawel Pawlikowski
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Ida is about to take her vows as a nun when the prioress informs her they received word from her Aunt Wanda. This comes as a surprise as Ida is an orphan, raised in the church since she was an infant. She travels to her aunt’s home and learns Wanda is a judge living her days out drunk and in promiscuous encounters with random men. Wanda also divulges that she is a Jew, that her parents were killed when the Germans invaded during the war. The two women set out so that Ida may find her parents’ graves and have some closure with her now uncovered past. What they learn profoundly unsettles them, encounter anti-Semitic resistance and ultimately learning how Ida’s mother and father were murdered. Ida also finds herself tempted by the world outside the church, a place she has no experience with.
Much like Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2018 film Cold War, Ida is a rich visual masterpiece. I’d argue Cold War shows growth and there has a few more stunning shots, but Ida is a remarkable film to behold. Every shot is static, the camera unmoving, characters coming in and out of the frame or cuts back and forth during conversations. There’s a conversation going on between the devoutly religious Ida and the secular Communist Wanda, the older woman sometimes taunting the young girl about her chaste nature. Wanda holds a deep sadness, having gone off to fight in the war while leaving her sister and family behind. You can see that she wants a relationship with Ida, but after near two decades of shutting herself off to the world, she can’t do it.
The landscapes in this film are grey and overcast, characters’ heads sometimes barely peeking up above the frame as the camera chooses to focus on the looming clouds in the sky. Therefore, Poland is a land trapped under its tragedies from the war. Wanda uses the arm of the Communist party to exact her revenge on people, threatening to ruin a farmer’s life if he doesn’t give her access to the information she wants. During World War II, around 3 million Jews were killed in Poland alone. Wanda knows that the culture has chosen to sweep these transgressions under the rug via the desire to “move on.” Wanda can’t yet also knows because of her position of power she must tread lightly lest the still present threat of anti-Semitism claims her as well.
The only break from the weight of the past and the exploration of tragedy is music. Just like in Cold War, Pawlikowski uses American jazz as a point of life in his work. Ida and Wanda end up at a hotel where a band is performing, and Ida finds herself attracted to the saxophonist. After Wanda engages her in a drunken argument before passing out, Ida storms from the room and finds herself watching the band play around after hours, these sounds are unlike anything she’s heard and it entices Ida to get to know the saxophonist and contemplate a life outside of the church.
Beyond just the particulars of Poland and the Holocaust, Ida uses those elements to explore questions of identity. Our protagonist knows nothing but the church and then is suddenly thrust into a new status, she is a Jew. These dissonant labels cause her to question her upbringing further and open up the possibility of having an intimate relationship with another person, leaving the church and starting a new life. Ida is a reasonably silent character and could quickly be forgotten about against the boldness of Wanda, but I would argue that Ida is hiding a rich complexity that doesn’t reveal itself almost until the end of the movie. Her emotions are subtle but they are there, and it requires the attention of the audience to infer what is going on as history comes hurtling towards her. The choice she makes in the final scene leaves many things up in the air but should provide for compelling conversation.