Ida (2013; dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) is understated and neutral. Filmed in beautiful black and white, it is set in the early 1960s in Poland. It thereby avoids the settings and situations and clichés one might expect in a more contemporary film. Even though the black and white cinematography is beautiful, it is understated. We’re not asked to believe that anything or anyone in this film is extraordinary. As an American viewer, I struggled with a temptation to attach values of one sort or another to the basic focus of the film: a young woman, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who has grown up in the convent where she is about to take vows and become a nun. Her mother superior informs her that before she takes this important step she must pay a visit to her aunt, of whose existence she was unaware. Ida makes the visit and receives information about herself and her past that could change her plans. Will she change them? In narrative terms, that is the main question in this film. Will her discovery of an unknown past, of unexpected ancestors, steer her towards another destiny? In moral or ethical terms, or at least terms that don’t relate to plot, should she change her plans?
Balanced against the possibilities that might characterize a life for Ida outside the convent are the facts of her past, of the dark and still present specter of World War II in Poland, where fifteen years after it ended victims of that war live alongside their victimizers. Poland is deeply embedded in the Cold War as well. The West is faintly present, mostly through a small jazz combo that Ida listens to in a bistro. She is an attractive young woman. She considers her options with one of the performers in the combo, who is attracted to her.
In the end she makes her decision. It is to the credit of this film, its truly unusual and rare achievement, that those of us in the audience are unable to feel that she has made either the right decision or the wrong one, the good or the bad. Does she surrender in the end to cowardice, to timidity, or simply to the cold realities of life in the world? Maybe it is more desirable to avoid them than to live with what they might bring.
Ida is the most distinctive film I’ve seen this year.