There have been so many films about World War II, the Holocaust, and Nazism that anything new that attempts to treat those subjects risks seeming redundant. This is why when I see the trailer for a film like Woman in Gold, my teeth set to grinding. How many times are audiences supposed to swallow pre-digested morals about how "art is good" and "Nazis are bad" before it all starts to blur together (see also: The Book Thief, The Monuments Men). It probably has to do with WWII being the last time Americans looked good fighting a war.
Enter Pawel Pawlikowski, a Polish filmmaker who has taken on the subject and attached to it a cool-headed, quiet story that somehow manages to more about mid-century Poland than fascism, which almost always threatens to eclipse whatever it stands next to. Ida is about a young woman named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who is about to become a nun. It's sometime during the fifties or sixties. Having grown up in a convent, she has never learned about her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-living woman from a nearby city. Before she takes her vows and enters the nunnery for the rest of her life, Anna visits Wanda, only to find out something about her heritage that upends all of her previously held notions about herself. She spends a few days with Wanda and becomes witness to the free-wheeling outside world that Poland has transformed into while she has been cloistered away in the church.
Because Pawlikowski is at the helm, you won't find Jessica Paré crooning "Zooby Zooby Zoo" or any other embarrassing reminders about that bygone era. Ida works more often in a silent film mode than anything else, which makes the infrequent interruptions of sound all the more striking. For example, whenever Anna is onscreen, the soundtrack is quiet; conversely, when we see Wanda, there is almost always some sort of diegetic music playing. It establishes a dichotomy between the family members that pays off later on in the film. Pawlikowski is nothing if not restrained in his telling of the story, not to mention the exquisite black and white cinematography by Oscar-nominees Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal. In keeping with the minimalist soundtrack, the film is also visually still, from the unmoving camera to the fastidious action of stars. Pawlikowski carefully frames his actors so that they appear minuscule against the landscape in long shots, or diminished by the empty space above them in closeups. These are visual reminders of the cosmic minuteness that Catholicism has burned into Anna's mindset, something that is disrupted by the introduction of her aunt.
I won't get into any more detail about the story because I found it best going in cold. You learn unexpected things about the characters, who then behave unexpectedly. Pawlikowski includes minor details early on that ultimately carry heavy symbolic relevance later, like Anna's hair or Wanda's record player. It is this attention to detail that makes Ida so splendid, and such a muted joy to watch. The performances by the two leads are in lock-step with Pawlikowski's sensibility, especially in their utter contrast to one another. Trzebuchowska, who speaks little, does amazing work with just her large, brown eyes, whereas Kulesza's acid tongue and cigarette smoke-blowing demeanor lend her a touch of earthy humanity that stands against Trzebuchowska's ethereality.
Ida won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year, and it deserves it. At 82 minutes, it's hard to pass up. Nevertheless, it is a demanding film because it tells its story so strongly through the visuals. Pawlikowski elliptical approach means that if you stop paying attention even for a minute at a time, you may miss a key bit of characterization or discovery in the plot. It is gorgeous, compelling and subtle in all the ways we've been trained not to expect from films about this point in history.