I was recently reminded of Freud’s assertion that humanity as a whole suffered from a singular, intrinsic contradiction. He claimed that each and every one of us are constantly caught between hurling ourselves into the unknown and – to put it simply – staying home in bed. We are at constant war within ourselves, our introvert fighting our extrovert, until one of them wins out or they both give up, leaving their host in unsatisfied limbo. It’s a will they/won’t they analogy that can be applied to almost every facet of humanity, and it coats every inch of Ida, a tale of two people too broken to hold on, but too afraid to let go.
The Ida in question is an orphan, raised in a Polish nunnery at the height of Communism’s grip on Eastern Europe. Upon visiting an aunt, her only remaining relative, Ida discovers that she was born a Jew – her parents were killed in the Nazi purges of the Second World War – and postpones taking her vows for a trip down memory lane.
The plot itself doesn’t move at a break-neck speed, yet Ida moves at an oddly relentless pace for such a quiet and measured film. A lot of this comes down to its miserly editing, with the film cut down to an extremely palatable 80 minutes – a rarity among a European art house scene packed with excessive and indulgent runtimes. It’s a movie put together like a set of snippets, showing flashes of interaction rather than fully fleshed conversations. In fact, there’s probably only a handful of scenes across the whole film that run over 45 seconds, and it makes Ida an oddly compelling watch for a movie about a Polish nun bonding with her aunt.
That’s an admittedly shorthand take on the events of the film, and there’s a great deal more to Ida than meets the eye. Although the pitch – a nun going on a road trip with her alcoholic aunt – sounds like something out of a Rob Schneider comedy, there is delicate, profound grace in every inch of Ida. It’s a film of stiff upper lips that only occasionally tremble, and never feels the need to spell out the deep and tragic pain at the hearts of its characters. It’s a film mired in legacies of sorrow – this is a country and a people still recovering from genocidal murder and massive political upheaval, its cities are dark and dingy, its characters seeking escape through booze, music and God.
The cinematography is quietly jaw-dropping, painting Ida’s world in Academy ratio monochrome; a bleak but beautiful picture of Khrushchevian austerity. Ida is rarely in the center of the frame, with lingering shots pushing her to the periphery of the screen, as if some other-wordly force is constantly trying to nudge her aside. Maybe it’s her God, hovering just over head, struggling to put her on the right path, or maybe it’s just her own creeping sense of separation from an outside world that simultaneously tempts and haunts her. She certainly isn’t an imposing protagonist, but newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska imbues Ida with a stoic and quiet determination, a fine foil for Agata Kulesza’s brash and brazen aunt, and far from the personality-less push over she could so easily have become.
These are the films that really stick with you. The films that come out of nowhere, pick you up and spit you out a different person. Ida isn’t a firebrand explosion of emotion, and it’s not a tirade against the murder and oppression of millions. Instead, it’s the small and quiet story of a handful of people just trying to get by. It’s modest, unpretentious and achingly beautiful, never feeling the need to over-explain the ocean of sorrow just below its surface. All I know is I owe it a second viewing, this kind of grace is far too rare to ignore.
Ida is a gorgeous and humble tale of stiff upper lips and scars that refuse to heal, where every frame is imbued with melancholic beauty and a quiet grace.