Take a second, relax, and breathe.
How often do you really get to do that, nowadays? Obviously, that answer is different for everyone, but when it comes to the cinema—well, most wide-release movies don’t give you that opportunity. The plot needs to push forward, the characters need to have arcs, the lighting needs to hide the shadows, the writing needs to be sharp but realistic, the action needs to be tense and riveting—and damn it all if you don’t have some symbolism in there. All of those things are important, but they also allow for a highly rewarding contrast: the quiet, calm movies that aren’t afraid to leave some breathing room amid all of the creative work. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise has become a poster child for this style.
Ida, the newest film by Pawel Pawlikowski, is of that ilk. The story follows Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is about to become a nun when she learns of a surviving family member, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza). She must visit Wanda before taking her vows, and is surprised to learn that she is Jewish. The discoveries about her parents and herself make her question the path she is on, as she and Wanda find that both of their lives might benefit from an alternate perspective.
The film does not push the plot much beyond that; in fact, my description might make it sound more active than it actually is. Ida is much more concerned with letting its characters grow and react to situations, and the result is a story that gives us a nuanced picture of two different but equally relatable characters. In contrast to Locke, which is another recent, intimate portrayal of an eponymous character, Ida does not have a driving pulse, but instead a meditative breathing pattern.
The result is refreshing. Cinema can be many things, but one that I find particularly enchanting the ability to intimately sketch out a character. Because Ida is content to develop at a relaxed pace, it allows for this facet of the silver screen in a way that we don’t often get to see. Of course, there is more to its successes than uniqueness: it’s also adept at revealing the characters’ inner machinations through dialogue and actions of habit. Wanda’s movements are looser, but her words carry weight, which shows her self-confidence and previous career as a judge. This contrasts Anna’s quiet disposition, but also reveals her curiosity with lingering, contemplative glances. The decisions made by the director and actors are very careful, and create a careful film as a result.
That being said, there are also some weaknesses that are typical of lesser art cinema. Namely, the cinematographers—Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski—like to use the powerful shot composition where the characters are in the bottom eighth or so of the screen. The result is a setting that shares focus with the protagonists, and reminds us of the effects of their environment, and that they are reacting to the world around them. However, this shot structure is used so many times as to render it impotent, and it thus becomes distracting due to overuse. Repeated cleverness becomes laziness.
Further, the interactions between Anna and Wanda do border on stereotypical from time to time. Wanda is the enlightened, independent woman, while Anna is sheltered and hasn’t seen the world. We know that, at some point, Anna will question her certainty about becoming a nun, and the way it plays out is obvious about twenty minutes into the film. That being said, this is not massively crippling, as the plot is not as essential as the characters, and we do learn more about Anna as a result.
Ida knows what kind of film it wants to be, and sets out to do so with nearly invariable success. I am not enchanted by it, but I respect its place in the vast world of cinema, and moreover I respect the work that went into it. If you want to catch a movie that does not cater to expectations, then you will be satisfied. If not—well, keep an eye out for these movies so that you get the chance to take a second and breathe in this massive cinematic landscape.