Movie News & Reviews

‘Ida,’ a film about a Polish novitiate, is ‘a meditation, not just a narrative’

Wanda (Agata Kulesza) helps novitiate Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) search for what happened to her parents during World War II in “Ida,” which is set in 1962.
Wanda (Agata Kulesza) helps novitiate Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) search for what happened to her parents during World War II in “Ida,” which is set in 1962. Music Box Films

People were talking about a little black-and-white Polish movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

People like Alfonso Cuaron, who would go on to win the Oscar for directing “Gravity,” and who couldn’t say enough about “Ida,” the story of a quiet, sheltered 18-year-old preparing to become a nun. Cuaron called it the best thing he’d seen in years.

At the Philadelphia Film Festival a month later, “Nebraska” director Alexander Payne likewise praised “Ida” to the skies.

“It makes me very happy to hear this,” says Pawel Pawlikowski, who wrote and directed “Ida,” not expecting it to make waves at all.

“‘Ida’ was just a little luxury I afforded myself, thinking that it will be a harmless film and nobody will see it,” says the director, whose work includes “My Summer of Love” (2004), which introduced Emily Blunt to the world, and “The Woman in the Fifth” (2011) with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Instead, at festivals here and abroad, “Ida” has prompted debate and awe. It is scheduled to open Friday at the Tivoli.

Set in 1962, when Poland was part of the Soviet bloc, “Ida” is about a young novitiate, an orphan, who discovers she has an aunt. She is sent to the city to meet this woman before she takes her vows, and so a journey begins.

“Ida” stars the unknown, untrained Agata Trzebuchowska, a college student spotted by a friend of Pawlikowski’s in a Warsaw cafe. The aunt is played by another Agata — Agata Kulesza, a veteran Polish actress. Her character is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-line Communist prosecutor who has sent people, priests among them, to their death. She is also Jewish.

Together, these two strangers connected by blood go on a quest to find out what happened to the niece’s parents during World War II.

“The story had many false starts,” says Pawlikowski, who spent his childhood in Warsaw, his adolescence in Britain, and now, in his mid-50s, is back in Poland in the same neighborhood where he was raised. “But once I actually got the essence — two women, together, very dissimilar, different temperaments, different ages, and one hasn’t seen anything and the other one has seen too much — then I had this road-movie trajectory, and I knew I was on safe ground dramatically.”

Safe, but as it turns out, controversial. At Jewish film festivals where “Ida” has screened, audience members wondered why Pawlikowski didn’t go further in his indictment of Poles’ complicity with the Nazis. In his homeland, some in the old guard questioned the movie’s agenda, its condemnation of people who may have seized property from Jews during the war.

“I’ve already gone through fire,” the soft-spoken Pawlikowski says with a laugh. “All these incredibly different reactions — some are disturbed by it, or moved. Others are angry that it doesn’t do things that they’d like it to do. A lot of people would like the film to be different. Polish nationalists don’t like it, feminists in France … Some people think it’s too formal, other people think it’s too oblique.”

It is, visually speaking, spare and exquisite. “Ida” is shot in long single takes, framed off-center, with a sense of space, of air, surrounding its protagonists. The film has a simplicity, a purity, that is almost shocking.

“It’s where my head was going,” Pawlikowski says. “I find myself escaping more and more in life, away from noise and fake energy and from too much information.

“In a way, I wanted an anti-film. All of cinema, its claims to profundities, its emotional trickery and camera movements, the music, the cuts. For me, I’ve had enough.

“Why move the camera? … I wanted this film to be like a meditation, not just a narrative. … I wanted to induce a certain state of mind in the audience. They watch the image, they feel the character, they feel the space, they enter that space, and they don’t constantly try to guess what happens next. They don’t crave information — well, they might crave it, but after five minutes, they’ve learnt that they’re not going to get any. So they just kind of float along with the film.

“It was a bit of a gamble in some ways, but then I had nothing to lose. Because it’s so uncommercial, it didn’t cost much. It was a film made in a different, parallel universe.

“And then it turns out to be maybe my most commercial film!”