It is not a new claim to compare Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida to the works of Ingmar Bergman. The inner psychosis, washed out black-and-white cinematography, quiet, haunted feel of the air around the film, and the contemplative characters are all Bergman down pat. Even better, the film’s clinical, dry exterior, carefully modulated framing, and highly static camera meant to box off characters at a distance for observation are all patented art-house techniques used piercingly well in Ida.
The shot selection is textured, operating form a well thought-out place of “show, not tell” and “show only what is necessary”. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous in a non-insistent, chilly sort of way that just sneaks up on you and envelops the story, as opposed to insisting on the visuals for their own sake as many art films do. It’s a calm film that hides deep internal dissonance and fractured soul, and that is what just about any Bergman film was in its refutation of narrative cinema for elliptical beauty. The sense that we never quite know what perspective the camera takes is very much present here. When it comes to pure craftsmanship, it’s a hard film to knock down.
The big surprise is that it is generally not a formal exercise though. The austere visual craftsmanship does tell a narrative story, and it does not seek to radically break down the form of narrative as a means of creating film like Bergman was often wont to do. Within the film’s early 1960’s, Agata Trzebuckowska stars as young Polish nun Ida who must make amends with her family, and her family history, before she takes her vows. With dispossessed dispassion, she does so, but what this entails has much more in store for her than she could have realized beforehand. She meets her aunt, played by Agata Kulseza, who informs her she is actually of Jewish descent, and that her personal history is tied into Poland’s larger great lie of Stalinist oppression.
Heady themes, but Ida doesn’t judge. It never even makes a sideways glance at the funereal pageantry so common in American melodramas about historical oppression, instead opting for a clear-eyed approach that melds process and person-hood. It’s all deeply observational, exploring Polish history through human eyes and finding commentary only in the smallest, most casual of human movements, or in the way Pawlikowski traps his characters with squared-off frames that perfectly center the people struggling to burst out within. It also seems to segment each scene off from the others, separating them and emphasizing moments rather than the progression of moments – for Ida herself is so crushed by and lost in life that she never seems to know the joy of progression or flow.
It’s as if her life is quietly fracturing before our eyes, her mind remembering individual segments but not the flow of them. There’s a wonderfully elliptical moment to this effect when Ida trails off to sleep during a night car ride. She’s accompanied by some poetic classical music to set the mood and quavering, flowing images reflected onto her face from the world outside the car. It’s a hypnotic moment, as if we’re trailing off with her into something beautifully dreamy. Then we get a hard cut on the jarring noise of Ida’s aunt knocking on the car window from outside, hitting Ida’s face if not for the glass in between them. It is now day, but Ida is in the same position, the film and her mind having skipped over the beauty of the journey we thought we might get for a cold, calculated, clinical reminder of its end on the other side. She hasn’t physically moved in the frame, but the film, and her mind, has moved around her, passing her by, and leaving her in the dust.
Some of the praise lumped on to Ida may find critics having their heads carried away with their hearts. Yes, Ida is a very good modern Bergman pastiche, so convincing that it’s hard to believe it was released in 2014. But the masterpiece claims bestowed upon Ida seem partially the result of people heaping praise upon the idea of a Bergman film in 2014. Ida executes on that idea exceedingly well, but that it is unique for 2014 can only carry it so far. It is very good Bergman, not great Bergman, and if the mad Swede had in fact directed it, then we must begrudgingly admit Ida would be a lesser film in his canon. It’s not like Ida really deconstructs filmic form or has anything truly subversive to showcase with its visuals – it’s a really fine dissection of human frailty, and nothing more.
Still, a really fine dissection of human frailty done up like a fan’s best attempt at modern Bergman is a pretty exciting, hefty idea, and Ida is a pretty exciting, hefty little underdog film. It’s well studied and deeply analytic, highly invested in everyday experience and the human mind, but it’s never didactic. It’s a strong film and a subdued stunner, the kind of work that sneaks up on you and bowls you over when you least expect it.