After the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut took the art of filmmaking to untouchable heights, subsequent filmmakers left those impossibly high standards alone and tried to establish their own unique sellable standards. Over half a century later, Pawel Pawlikowski made the brave attempt of walking in their shoes with his film, Ida , and he did so with remarkable success.
In 1962, Ida is a 17 year old orphan nun, who has been ordered by her Mother Superior to visit her only living relative, Wanda, a week before taking her irrevocable vows. Ida discovers in the nick of time that she is in fact a Jew. The two women, aunt and niece, embark upon a journey to excavate the truth about how their family died during the Holocaust. It is Ida's first venture into the world outside of her cathedral. The world she discovers travelling with 'Red Wanda', the communist resistance fighter/state prosecutor, is a sharp contrast to the unnaturally sheltered world she has been raised in.
With long stationary shots filmed in black and white, Ida is a period piece that has the look of being made in the period it is set in. The frames keep unusually large head room that renders the characters lonely and insignificant in the greater scheme of things. The skimpiness of dialogues makes them much more elusive and relatable. The film works through suggestion, rather than explanation. It masterfully paints a grisly picture of Poland under German occupation devoid of any on-screen violence. It received wide critical acclaim including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year, despite being criticized at home for being anti-Polish and for misrepresenting historical facts (since the film hinted that some Polish might have killed Jews in order to acquire their properties).
The film consciously avoids the contemporary tricks of cinema to elicit emotions. In fact, the director broke so many conventions of textbook filmmaking that it is a marvel how the film panned out so seamlessly. Having started out as a documentary filmmaker, Pawlikowski doesn't find any interest in directing a film that has already been 'written'. He prefers to write the film with his camera as he goes in a fluid, documentary approach. He describes his experience of making Ida as a 'nerve-wrecking journey' where he deviated all he wanted from the original script, which was written only to attract financiers. The film had a hundred reasons to go wrong. Agata Trzebuchowskaw, who played Ida, had no previous experience in acting. It was the first feature film for cinematographer Lukasz Zal as well. The film only had a little over half of its proposed budget to work with. Yet, all the limitations seemed to work in favour of Ida making it into a modern day classic that will captivate film enthusiasts for a long time to come.