I think there is some kind of tendency to associate widescreen images with the scope of a story. Ever since widescreen formats became dominant in film, it feels like we’ve become comfortable with the idea that a wider frame is needed to show the most awe-inspiring landscapes and ideas. “Ida” uses a much squarer frame than we expect from modern films and shows the faults with this assumption at every turn. Its photography is beautiful and expansive, and at times its scenery seems to overwhelm both its characters and its audience with its incredible scale.
This visual exchange between the environment and the film’s characters reflects its delicate balancing of themes that are personal and historical, intimate and political. The film focuses on the title character, a young nun, and her aunt, who tells Ida of her Jewish ancestry and of the murder of her parents during World War II. Ida decides to find the graves of her parents with her aunt’s help.
Director/writer Paweł Pawlikowski and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz use Ida’s journey to discuss, with great care and compassion, some of the harrowing issues that faced Poland in the decades after the war. They are assisted by two remarkable central performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza.
The differences between Ida and her aunt become more and more significant as they get closer to their answers. This is Ida’s first exposure to the world outside her convent, but her aunt possesses more knowledge and a deep cynicism. The film depicts their reactions to their experiences candidly and honesty, without resorting to easy explanations or convenient resolutions. A breadth of human experience surfaces through their interactions with each other and the others they come across.
“Ida” makes generous use of silence and treats dialogue with a natural, restrained touch. There are no long monologues to quote. But its images are striking. Ida and her aunt are placed in the corners and sides of the frame for long, still scenes, giving the viewer the opportunity to consider the ramifications of each moment, to try and understand the cultural and personal history that informs every beat of their lives, as well as our own. What “Ida” accomplishes in 80 minutes is stunning.