Pawlikowski’s Ida is a throwback to an era during which directors took their craft seriously enough to produce worlds with such haunting precision they still seem a bit more important than our own. There is much Bresson, Dreyer, and even a little Bergman in Ida. It is full of solid building blocks of composition; basic thematic elements of life, death, faith, and despair. It has a deep focus, drawing the eye around more than it can digest even over the slow pace of the film. For one like myself, weened as a young cinephile by the classic filmmakers marked by what Schrader labeled the “transcendent style,” Ida is a welcome sort of retro.
The beginning of Ida tracks through a nunnery and the routines of monastic life with an elegance that remains throughout the film, even when it takes abrupt turns to far less sacred spaces. Pawlikowski’s use of this Catholic imagery frames the film with a set of historical and ethical expectations. It also ties the film to its predecessors, like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Mouchette; this initial imagery present as a formal footnote to the real marrow of the film, which is substantial.
It is best to let the slow realizations of the film unfold at Pawlikowski’s pace. Ida revisits an era of Polish history that saw 1/5 of its population vanish before 1945, followed quickly by the cultural changes brought by Soviet occupation. We follow the young novitiate, Ida, as she uncovers the fate of her parents with her Jewish aunt, now a Soviet regime judge. Pawlikowski’s Poland is stark and abounds with portent. Many unspoken tensions and sorrows emerge. The actress that plays Ida was apparently noticed at a cafe and drafted in as a blank canvas for this character, who becomes a mute witness in the film to the terror of Jewish genocide and the Soviet aftermath. She is a bit like Dreyer’s Joan in that her character is more about a violent march of history than her Catholic subtext. Ida’s aunt is a force of nature, her vices a thin veneer for the pasts she bears.
And, slight spoiler, the final shot is near identical to the last shot of Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, a film that lacks the formal and historical depth of Ida. In a long shot with deep focus, we watch Ida walk on a road back to the nunnery, back to the embrace of quiet tradition. I initially found this transposition jarring, as if Ida comes full circle back to being just a coming-of-age drama that poses Ida’s return to the nunnery as a form of historical nihilism. But I think it is more than that, as the film ends up being about the deep and sorrowful confusion of a young girl about man’s inhumanity to man. Her return to the church is less a retreat than it is an instinctive return to home.