Foreign film’s aesthetic distinguishes ‘Ida’ from Academy Award contenders

It’s rather fitting that Paweł Pawlikowski’s film “Ida,” nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this week’s upcoming 87th Academy Awards, is presented entirely in black and white. This is not because the subject matter or thematic content of the film particularly warrants this bold aesthetic choice, which is made all the more so by the film’s aspect ratio. It was shot in the now-antiquated Academy ratio, producing a boxy 1:33:1 frame rather than the widescreen viewing experience most modern audience members are accustomed to. No, despite “Ida[’s]” striking and sometimes beautiful visual uniqueness, form does not match content in Pawlikowski’s movie, which deserves its inky color palette only in the way it deals in frustrating simplicities and all-too-basic absolutes.

“Ida” is a brief, quiet tale of a lifelong but not yet avowed nun, Anna (the gorgeous Agata Trzebuchowska) who grew up without a biological family in a convent in Poland. The film is set in 1962 when, just before making her vows, Anna’s superiors send her to spend time with a relative of whom the young woman was previously unaware: her apparent aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). They’re certainly an odd pair, as one character needlessly points out: Ida is devout, always dressed in her religious garb, behaviorally calm and plain, and naïve in the sense that she hasn’t seen any part of the world except her immediate home in the church. Wanda, on the other hand, is a former state prosecutor and judge who now spends most of her time chain-smoking, drinking liquor and bedding anonymous men in her upscale urban apartment. The events of the film follow the unlikely duo, connected by blood and a feeling of isolation, as they uncover secrets about Anna, whose birth name is Ida, her past, familial history, and a tragic turn of events involving the crimes of Nazi Germany.

Unfortunately, Pawlikowski treats his characters more as icons than finely developed or complicated people, a limitation reinforced at one point by the director’s cutting from a shot of a dormant Jesus statuette to Anna/Ida sleeping in bed. Characters are defined with blunt simplicity as either being similar or glaringly obvious foils to one another—while traveling to a location along their journey, Wanda and Ida pick up a hitchhiking jazz musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) who emerges as an admirer and possible love interest for the latter woman, far too obviously and predictably representing both an antithetical lifestyle (he admits to never having vowed something and also of actively avoiding military service, in addition to his free-spirited profession) as well as a perfect-match counterpart to young Ida (“I’ve got some gypsy in me,” he quips in response to her revealing of her Jewish roots). The nun’s relationship with her aunt is more interesting, mostly due to Trzebuchowska and Kulesza’s exacting performances, but Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay nonetheless paints the two women as irreconcilable opposites defined each by one pursuit: the habit (which Wanda laments in one moment as hiding her niece’s beautiful red hair) and the bottle.

In its first half, the film’s distinctive visual style intrigues for its austere elegance and its director’s off-kilter framing, often pushing his characters into the corners of his compositions, intentionally excising their bodies at angles that emphasize discomfort or mere strangeness. For a good deal of the enjoyment and artistic mileage derived from Pawlikowski and DPs Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s self-conscious framings, especially in the first 40 minutes, are due to our lack of understanding as audience members as to the intention of the images being so stylized. Things become less compelling when we realize that there isn’t much of a purpose to the choices at all beyond wispy flirtations with ideas of isolation and doubt. Certainly, there is an importance placed on what is allowed to exist within each confined shot, with characters exiting and entering the frame’s static space at key moments of significance. But the filmmaker never fully justifies his employment of such techniques, and as the film devolves into a sensationalistic treatment of its sensitive subjects in its back half, it becomes clear “Ida” is averse to truly exploring the subjects it name-checks.

The most poignant moments of the film are also problematically attached to Pawlikowski’s fascination with the past. “Ida[’s]” shots frequently include frames within the larger frame, communicating that the movie is about piecing together a certain narrativized history and seeking an understanding of the images and stories that came before us. In a scene late in the film, Wanda attempts to construct something of a family tree with a pile of photographs, her hands carefully arranging the little rectangles in front of us. It’s a gorgeous shot, but one that betrays the filmmaker’s mission here, looking back to a past era with an aesthetic that is making reference to the stylings of another time. The shot is more weakly retrofitted than purposefully retro, impressing in its commitment to superficially pleasing techniques, but with questionable substance to back it up.

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