Paweł Pawlikowski’s story about a young nun discovering the troubled past of her Jewish family is as remarkable for its subtlety as for its power
Some films are so delicate you are afraid they will collapse in the first puff of wind, or disintegrate like a soap bubble. Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is one such: an achievement so subtle and intangible, it’s hard to understand precisely why it’s so powerful, and why it leaves such a lasting impression. Pawlikowski has described Ida as a “miracle”. He was talking about a luckily timed snowstorm that held up production long enough to allow a rewrite, but the film itself could be considered a kind of miracle.
The bare-bones outline of Ida’s plot, for example, sounds sturdy rather than spectacular, if not unpromising. A young novice nun on the verge of her vows is ordered by her mother superior to visit her only close relative, an aunt. The aunt tells Ida that she was, in fact, born to Jewish parents, who are now dead. The pair then set off on a journey to find out exactly what happened to them. Set in Poland in the early 60s, the story has a piquancy, given the country’s troubled history of its relationship after the second world war with its once-substantial Jewish minority.
It’s how this story is handled that so elevates it. Pawlikowski never dwells on the social or political points: the aunt is a compromised Stalinist lawyer; Poland is in the grip of cold-war communism; and Ida herself is forced into existential self-doubt. Yet these things lie lightly over the film – nothing is hammered home, or pointed up. What is made much of, on the other hand, is Ida’s fervent, devotional watchfulness; she carries the intensity of her faith into an investigation of her own family’s past.
Moreover, the cinematography enhances the sense of spiritual weight. The off-centre framing, in which much of the visual space is given over to blank areas of roof and sky, is more than a stylistic pose – it presses down on Ida, as if it was an extension of her consciousness, an attempt to break out of physical boundaries and limitations. Or God, if you want to look at it that way.
However Pawlikowski arrived at Ida – and by his telling, it was a long, arduous process of honing and tweaking – it is of a piece with his earlier films, the British-set Last Resort and My Summer of Love, and even his 40-minute BBC car-thief docu-drama Twockers. Each also elevate their raw material but Ida grapples with far larger emotional and historical questions.
There’s no doubt that Pawlikowski’s miracle of a film will go down as a landmark of Polish cinema. Next February, it could even carry off best foreign-language Oscar. But in an age when non-Anglophone, thematically ambitious cinema is in retreat, I suspect that it’s already proved the answer to a lot of people’s prayers.
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