Since its bow in the London Film Festival last year, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida has quietly burrowed deep into my psyche, refusing to vacate my cerebral cortex with its haunting imagery and quiet tragedy. Finally finding its way to the UK cinemas this weekend, Pawlikowki’s resonant masterpiece is shorn of historical fat and rather makes the emotional and existential baggage all the more hefty by confronting the traumas of World War II through such stark yet riveting minimalism. An invigorating aesthetic and narrative propinquity in this age of maximal Hollywood overdrive. In Ida, the less is said about the trauma, the deeper the grief digs in. And yet the closer the two central characters of the piece get to the truth of their shared familial past, the implosion is ever more apparent. Where other films of the same ilk (the sort of ilk that touches on the vast, inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust, memories of war and its lasting scars) would easily resort to sentimentalism, soundtracked to John Williams’ orchestra, Ida remains staunchly and realistically sober throughout as if a hint of emotion would crumble the entire picture.[divider]+[/divider]
Pawlikowki’s resonant masterpiece is shorn of historical fat and rather makes the emotional and existential baggage all the more hefty by confronting the traumas of World War II through such stark yet riveting minimalism.[divider]+[/divider]
If that hints at a cold, bleak film, it’s anything but. There are touches of humanity in the titular protagonist’s road to self-discovery, temporarily suspending her vows of becoming a fully-pledged Catholic nun to reconnect with her only remaining relative and investigate her Jewish roots in a ravaged, postwar Poland. Ida and her Aunt Wanda, former court magistrate turned hard-drinking legal labourer, make for an odd road-movie couple, with the liberal latter forever questioning Ida’s faith and unswerving conservatism. The burden of family history and identity take centre stage here, as both conflicted figures slowly unravel during their hunt for Ida’s dead parents, addressing grief in contrasting behaviour. Ida uncoils, slowly discovering life outside the convent, quietly seduced by jazz and sexuality, while Aunt Wanda quickly collapse into anger and despair, the sorrows of the past and present prove too much to bear.
All these shot in stunning Bressonian black-and-white photography, transposed in Academy ratio. Ida is part of the new wave of films (Tabu, The Artist, Frances Ha, Nebraska) that make monochrome a la mode again. But Pawlikowski’s intention is better – he purposefully limits the aspect ratio, squeezing the protagonist’s perspective and knowledge of her past within the frame. We’d never expect those two parallel black bars on the side could gain some unexpected depth, as if all the pain, grief and torturous history are there on the side – unseen yet deeply felt. The characters are pushed to the corners of the frame, either reduced to mere diminutive figures or shot unconventionally with missing facial or bodily features, as if we’re denied from a complete picture. It’s a deliberately artful choice, but not without justification. The sorrow and trauma will always be there, and these broken people will never, ever be whole in their lifetime.