Home Video Hovel: Ida, by Williamson Balliet
Pawel Pawlikowski’s thoughtfully minimal Ida is wholly engrossing throughout its scant runtime. Lurking just below the surface of its minimalist design is a language that explores its protagonist beautifully, telling more about her with a wordless and excellently framed static shot than any dialogue could reveal.
It is Poland in the 1960s and Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) has lived in a convent her entire life. She is on the precipice of taking her vows – celibacy, poverty, all that good stuff. Told that she is to visit her last remaining relative, her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), prior to her final commitment, she sheepishly embarks on a journey of familial discovery. She is forced to confront her own heritage and morbid family history, and reconcile it with her present.
The film is shot entirely in black and white and influences of Carl Theodor Dreyer seem apparent but never irritatingly so. Throughout much of the film, Ida is rarely centered in frame. She is often low or to the side, intonating at times a lack of agency and a much larger world she has never been a part of. Almost her whole life has been spent within monastic halls and even her trip to visit her last relation came at the insistence of her superior. Moreover, nearly every shot is beautiful in its very staging. The settings seem crafted to perfection, stages eagerly awaiting the arrival of the aunt and niece.
And this pairing makes for a wonderful dynamic. Wanda Gruz is a former investigator for the Communist state, now often finding refuge in casual sex and booze. Her former position would be perhaps unbelievable were it not for her calculation and shrewdness. Kulesza’s performance is spectacular, with an emptiness concealed somewhere behind her unapproachable façade. Ida quietly judges Wanda’s vices, but with an equally quiet interest in this unknown lifestyle. And as they search together for the burial ground of her family, killed sometime during the Nazi occupation, they are commonly engrossed. The characters play off one another so gracefully that I did not even stop to consider how truly and obviously these two are complete opposites. They are not characters or stereotypes, but fully formed individuals who just happen to share no similarities other than their blood.
And while perhaps Ida may play equally well as a microcosmic view of the torturous lives being lead during the Nazi occupation of Poland, I am hesitant to view it on such a scale. I fear that doing so does not allow the story to shine on its own merits. It is such an emotive and personal self-discovery that Ida makes that I prefer to take it for what it is: a beautifully captured strive towards an independence that was before never even seen as an option. One in which the final shot makes you feel as though you have walked every step of a long road with the protagonist and are now fully satisfied, knowing that each step was necessary in creating the person she has become.