A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

A successful film needs the correct balance of story and style, and when the story is as straightforward as Ida's, there's a great risk of overwhelming it with stylistic tricks. A novice called Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows to become a nun when she learns that she has an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who wants to meet her. It is the 1960s, and Wanda is a judge in the courts of the communist government with a reputation for having for having presided brutally over the show trials of the 1950s that solidified communist power. She tells Anna, who was raised in an orphanage, that she was born to Jewish parents, one of whom was Wanda's sister, and that her birth name was Ida Lebenstein. Anna goes with Wanda in search of the graves of her parents and the son whom Wanda left with them when she joined the resistance during the war. Along the way, the tough, hard-drinking, sexually liberated Wanda, determined to provoke Anna out of her ascetic, devout ways, picks up a handsome young hitchhiker named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a jazz saxophonist on his way to a gig. The story that director Pawel Pawlikowski and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz develop from this situation is told in an austerely beautiful manner. Two cinematographers are credited: Lukasz Zal took over as director of photography after Ryszard Lenczewski became ill during filming; both were deservedly nominated for cinematography Oscars. Pawlikowski chose to film in black-and-white to evoke the Polish films of the 1960s, the era of the young Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Andrzej Wajda, although it's more accurate to refer to the cinematography as monochrome because the use of the many shades of gray and the emphasis on the textures of walls and skies and landscapes is extraordinary. The images are also strikingly framed: Characters rarely appear in the direct center of the screen, but are shifted toward the bottom or the corner of images. (Remarkably, the film also sometimes moves the subtitles from the bottom to the top of the frame to accommodate this placement.) Such manipulations could be seen as mannered, but I think it works to suggest that the lives of the characters themselves have been placed somewhere slightly off-center.