Ida is all glory and demands allegory. Survey Europe’s scraping skies and see the Gothic reflect back. From Prague to Dresden, Notre Dame to Westminster; each is an architectural masterpiece. From royal to gargoyle, they inspire transcendental awe making one feel all but small.
Perhaps it seems oddly tangential to track Pawlikowski’s Polish Ida back to a provincial hometown in England, Gloucester. Behold: from the irreverent springs the reverent; from the irrelevant, the relevant. As cultural cross-reference transpires, the spires of a Norman cathedral to the pastoral, Polish landscape seem poles apart. Yet, these poles can be united with a touch of polish.
In summer 2014, Gloucester Cathedral hosted a progressive exhibition of modern art within its striking white whole. At the altar stood a small, gilt-gold overlaid, solid silver angel. Entitled ‘Fallen Angel’, it was a work of Damien Hirst at his provocative best. Within the setting its context was raised to the heavens. Rather than being a cerebral celebration of the celestial, Hirst vexed onlookers with the embellishment. Gone were the halo or gleaming angelic sheen. Come were the accoutrements of drug abuse. Track marks tore into the gashed arms left bare, bereft of their gold veneer of innocence. More conspicuous were the heroin spoon and skull. With this eternal symbol of life’s death, the fall was complete. From heaven-faced to devil’s face.
Without giving Ida away, director Pawel Pawlikowski, in his first home tongue feature, is concerned with a similar reversal. We meet Ida hazy-eyed and entranced within the walls of a rural monastery. She completes her daily tasks dutifully with a face of angelic purity. Oft-expressionless and stony in gaze, Agata Trzebuchowska, could be bereft of character and lack personality. Instead, she is the making of the film. Her cold pallor sends icy fingers down the spine. Her smile reserved, her laugh modest, she transfixes in the economy of her emotional range.
Pawlikowski balances his classically Catholic creation by means of the quintessential odd couple. Into Ida’s life of parsimony and self-sacrifice, lands Ida’s aunt Wanda Gruz, in a power house performance from Agata Kulesza. Thinking herself an orphan with no family at all, Ida’s life is transformed when she is told that she is Jewish, a Lubenstein. With Wanda Gruz, the sister of her mother and a leading figure in the embryonic rebirth of Poland, the pair set off to find the burial site (or worse) of their relatives. The ensuing road trip has time for a single bright white flash of humour within an otherwise abjectly bleak depiction of post war reconciliation.
Wanda, deranged, depressive and alcohol dependent sets out with Ida after one or maybe six too many schnapps. An audience expects something, without doubt, but the payoff is brilliant nonetheless. Increasingly wavering, Wanda waives the road completely and ventures off into a ditch. Only we do not see the crash. Just an empty road lined by trees and an identical car before two horses emerge tethered to the car as it comes careering into view behind hooves. Two brake horse power in total. While not a laugh, it is at least a smirk, and that is sufficient levity for this film.
With both Ida’s parents murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the holocaust looms large in the subtext, but the film’s context is more tragic. Withdrawing from the anonymity of the concentration camps of Auchwitz and Dachau, Pawlikowski places the human evil right at home. Stuck straight into the heart of society, the legacy of the war is a blunt dagger that rankles deep and lasts long. We witness the human cost of the war within the tiniest setting of a rural Polish hamlet. Coming face-to-face with a murderer who is, in essence a peasant, provokes a visceral disgust that never dissipates. It is a community beset by betrayal. With wonder can it be believed that within these micro-societies the wounds ever heal.
This is the wider picture for a film that is predominantly concerned with its eponymous heroine. Ida is a nuanced portrait of many shades. It only veers from its translucent mirage of memory towards an opaque clarity when innocent Ida metamorphoses into her vagrant aunt. As she puts on the heels, takes tobacco and licks liquor, it is a surprisingly black and white form of metamorphosis that is too obvious for a film of such quality. What is black and white, is the superb cinematography that adds the gothic edifice to match the fallen angel.
Presented in antiquated 1.37:1 screen ratio, Ida is uncluttered without the colour that would confound, not concentrate the aesthetic. Pawlikowski’s film is an elegant eulogy of a lost and forgotten time. With not even the slightest hint of nostalgia, the film is more a case study for society of the potential for evil, that is still only seventy years away. Rather than a set of postcards from the past, it is a collection of perfectly shot stills that are presented to an audience via the projection of film. It is an exhibition more than a narrative film. It is vital and starkly relevant, especially with the nascent return of anti-Semitism within vast swathes of Europe. The far Right are never far from bigotry and when the muslim threat runs dry there is always the traditional scape-goat for society. In Ida, Pawlikowski exposes a lesson from the past which we must now recognise and act upon for the future. Lessons from history are there to be learnt from, none more so than Ida’s simple, short story. More than a worthy winner of the Best International Film, it is a warning for us all.