When we colloquially use the term “photogenic,” we sometimes mistake it to refer to things that are conventionally attractive: a pretty vase, a breathtaking landscape, a supermodel. But photogenic is a quality that simply attracts the eye when captured – objects, events, and people that seem befitted to the strengths of photography, or things that, when framed a particular way, draw the eye in. Sure, Brad Pitt is photogenic, but so is Boris Karloff. Photogenic is not a term of evaluation, but a term of function: an ancient cavern can be photogenic, as can a bloody war zone.
Thus, the fact that cinema can and has long depicted tragedy, horror and detritus in ways that are evocative and even beautiful has never been a paradox. Cinema uses the tools of what Jean Epstein referred to as “photogenie” to take viewers into a perspectival space, where they are asked to look at and examine people and events in ways they might not be drawn to in other contexts. The photogenic draw has rarely blocked the potential meaning or depth of the thing photographed.
Yet while watching Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, I found myself experiencing something I don’t think I have before. I was drawn in by the incredible beauty of Ida’s photography to the point of alienation from the complex story through which such images unfolded in front of me.
In 1960s communist Poland, a young orphan-raised novitiate nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is asked by her convent to visit her only living relative before she chooses to take her vows. Anna meets Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an aunt who matches Anna’s silent asceticism with sharp wit, detached confidence and brooding remorse. Wanda reveals to Anna that her birth name is actually Ida, and she is of Jewish heritage. Wanda and Anna/Ida then embark on a somber road trip into their shared family past, where they discover repressed truths about the tragic deaths of Anna/Ida’s parents. This journey affects them differently: As Wanda revisits the unconscionable injustice of losing her sister and brother-in-law, Anna/Ida encounters a distressing history completely alien to her.
This is an existential journey for our protagonist, not only marking a sudden foray into the role of two forgotten souls in Poland’s tragic war-era history, but also Anna’s reckoning with the specter of “Ida.” Through her journey with Wanda, Anna/Ida is given a vision of a life she can choose if she doesn’t say her vows, a life of youth and leisure represented by the protagonist’s handsome, jazz-playing love interest. (A brutal winter in an eastern European communist nation seems no match for young love). Ida is much less a mystery about the past than it is a mystery about the future: will Ida leave the convent for good, or will she continue living as Anna? Would an embrace of her family history doom her to a life forever broken by past tragedy as exemplified by Wanda; or, if Anna chooses to take her vows, could she ever again be the woman she was before this journey?
Ida is deceivingly economic in its structure. Its narrative has a clear journey, if not a predictable destination. But within that structure is a story about some incredibly daunting choices one woman has to make in a short amount of time. It’s a film less about Polish history, and more about the person Anna chooses herself to be in the wake of that history. As such, the film rests on Trzebuchowska’s reserved performance: her curious eyes and reluctant gestures speak volumes about a woman who is growing up more quickly than she’s ever had to before, yet she refuses to give away what she’s thinking and betray vulnerability.
Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is simply remarkable and places Ida in the running for the most stunningly photographed and visually composed film this year. Pawlikowski, Lenczewski, and Zal clearly enjoy exploring what placing characters in the bottom half (or third) of the frame can do to a viewer’s relationship to the overall space of the scene. In Ida’s square near-Academy ratio, this is not a jarring choice of style (despite the fact that it requires subtitles to sometimes move to the middle or top of the frame), but one that allows for a masterfully geometric organization of objects and textures that make up the image. Each and every shot is an image to behold, with its own unique texture and sense of spatial arrangement.
In fact, the cinematography is so perfect that I often found myself admiring its use of composition irrespective of the given scene and overall momentum of the film. Each shot can be studied like a photograph, and despite the film’s occasional long take, the transition to another shot (much less another scene) can, surprisingly, interrupt the serenity of the previous image. It’s a strange problem that I’ve never encountered before: an otherwise thoughtful film’s style working in conflict with its content. Ida expects its audience to see Anna’s journey as a means of understanding the weight she endures in her interior life, in which she must make a decision that heretofore defines her existence. Yet the admiration that the film’s masterful style evokes can obscure the contemplation that its deliberately paced narrative requires.
Similar to the protagonist’s central conflict, within Ida lies two films: a film whose style generates awe, and a film whose narrative requires patient meditation. Unfortunately, neither of those two films ever quite merge into one.
The Upside: A straightforward story burdened with layers of complex implications for its protagonist; brilliant, first-rate cinematography; a great lead performance.
The Downside: Some of the film’s strong suits actually conflict with one another.
On the Side: Ida is the first of the Polish-born director’s feature narrative films to take place in his homeland.