Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
1960s Poland. Young Catholic nun Ida (Trzebuchowska) is about to make her vows, but is instructed by her superior to reconnect with her family before doing so. Ida is unenthused about this, as her only remaining family member is her aunt Wanda (Kulesza), a vodka swilling, man-eating local Judge. When Ida arrives at Wanda's home, her aunt drops a clanger: Ida's family were actually Jewish, victims of the WWII genocide. Ida insists on tracking down the final resting place of her family, and sets off with Wanda, who attempts to talk her niece out of taking her vows.
With its mismatched central pairing, Ida could well have been told as a comedy; indeed, its dynamic owes much to Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, in which Jack Nicholson similarly attempts to show young sailor Randy Quaid a good time prior to the young man's court martial. There are few laughs to be found here, however, as Ida and Wanda's particular adventure results in them uncovering the grim details of Poland's dark past.
The glibness displayed towards the atrocities of the war is an all too lucid example of what Hannah Arendt called 'The banality of evil.' Confronted with barely concealed anti-semitism, Ida and Wanda react in different ways, the young nun maintaining a positive visage in the face of such hypocritical bigotry (unaware of her lineage, locals ask her to bless their children), while her embittered aunt struggles to conceal her contempt, while concealing the guilt of committing atrocities in service of the communist regime.
A road movie with only one stop on its journey, Ida is one of the most visually impressive films of 2014. The cinematography comes from the pairing of veteran Ryszard Lencewski (who boasts Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret on his CV) and young protege Lukasz Zal. Shooting in crisp black and white, this behind the camera duo are as much the stars of the film as its onscreen pairing of Trzebuchowska and Kulesza. The film's 4:3 ratio lends it a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment, even in its expansive landscape shots.
Pawlikowski's previous films have seen him work in Britain and France, where he's struggled to find a footing, resulting in works that seem directionless, none more so than the Paris set The Woman in the Fifth, which played like a parody of Gallic cinema. Working on his home turf has produced his first worthwhile effort, and the positive international response to Ida may give Polish cinema the shot in the arm it needs.
By Eric Hillis