IDA film review
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 18th May 2014
The opening frames of this gently exquisite film are striking, setting the tone appropriately for the story that follows. Crisp black and white photography is lit so that a novitiate nun’s young face appears to take on a preternaturally angelic glow. The square framing of the antiquated aspect ratio (last seen by most viewers in The Artist, which also harked back to the old days of pre-colour cinema) places characters at the very bottom of the screen with what in photographic terms one might call “too much sky”. The effect is intriguing and immersive all at once, as we are transported to the 1960s of Ida’s setting, as a young Polish orphan embarks on a journey of self- and familial- discovery.
Young Ida has grown up as Anna, raised in a convent after her parents perished in unknown circumstances during the war. On the cusp of committing to a life of celibacy and spiritual dedication, Anna’s Mother Superior insists that she visits her only known relative, an aunt, before taking her vows. Anna is reluctantly obedient, but her ensuing discoveries soon open up a burgeoning curiosity about the tragedies of her past.
Having won awards from London to Toronto, it’s a wonder writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski doesn’t spend more time making films and less time studying them. The Polish-born Brit worked in television for many years before initiating a film career which has garnered only five features since 1998. 2000’s Last Resort marked him out as one to watch, then in 2004 Pawlikowski hit pause to enter academia for a few years and combine research with university teaching. Given he had just earned great acclaim for his breakout hit My Summer of Love (which was also the launch pad for Emily Blunt’s now major Hollywood career), his students will have hung on his every word.
Indeed, Pawlikowski is to be applauded for sticking to the maxim “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. Ida continues this rule, and is also an exemplar for artists to follow their hearts and produce work they believe in rather than succumb to the populist obligations of a studio. Pawlikowski has a knack for creating low-key, accessible characters (often female – here the leads are an aunt-niece relationship of yin and yang personalities; My Summer of Love took a similar tack in its tale of two very different young women forging a passionate bond).
He then places them in ordinary circumstances and lets very human predicaments unfold. Here, young Christian Anna learns she is in fact Jewish-born Ida, a fact which might reasonably disrupt anyone’s religious intentions. Her aunt is the tenacious, fast-living antithesis of Godly living, warmly bemused as she encourages Ida, with tongue only partially in cheek, to have as many sinful thoughts as possible in order to make her vows more meaningful. Ida’s resulting peek at life outside the habit is a heartfelt examination of one’s strength of faith and intention.
Eschewing fanfare for long, perfectly-paced shots, Pawlikowski uses a lot of single angle takes so his actors actually get to react to one another and their environment. It’s far from slow, however, and the economical 80 minutes fly by in a tale whose tone is akin to Gloomy Sunday but which is photographed like a fine painting.
The result is an intoxicating masterpiece which will restore your faith in the magic of good old-fashioned movie-making.