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Ida (2014)Pawel Pawlikowski is a Polish-born filmmaker living in England who… More Pawel Pawlikowski is a Polish-born filmmaker living in England who returns to his native land for the astonishing IDA. Set in the early 60s in Communist-era Poland, IDA is the story of a young novitiate nun who is urged by her Mother Superior to meet her only living relative before taking her vows. Through her aunt, she discovers she is a Jew whose parents were killed during the Holocaust. I initially resisted this film, assuming it would be a painful melodrama with grand emotions and a sweeping "important" score. Luckily I went, realizing within the first frame I was in the hands of a master of austere filmmaking on an equal par with the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose THREE COLORS: WHITE this slightly resembles, or with Michael Haneke, who achieved a similar tone with THE WHITE RIBBON. Shooting in black and white and utilizing the typically obsolete square box Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1, (also used recently in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), IDA is a quiet yet powerful film about sacrifice, identity, desire, and despair. Sounds kicky and fun, right? If you're looking for challenging cinema, however, and have tired of Michael Bay's hyper-kinetic aesthetic, this film is richly rewarding. It's star, Agata Trzebuchowska, is a newcomer and feminist hipster Pawlikowski met in a café at the request of a friend. She resisted the role initially, but thank goodness she took it. Resembling the love child of Claire Danes and Ellen Page, hers is a performance based almost entirely on enigmatic glances. It's not great acting, but it's memorably effective nonetheless. On the opposite end of things is Agata Kulesza's galvanizing performance as Ida's world-weary aunt Wanda. Taken to drinking, picking up random men and needling her niece about her religious convictions, Wanda has a highly complex relationship with her past. After the War, during which she suffered many losses, she became a Communist party leader who would often send dissidents to an early grave. Currently a low-level judge, Wanda's collision with Ida forces her to deal with her life, sometimes playfully and sometimes with unbearable sorrow. To describe the story makes it sound like a soap opera, but the filmmaker's approach is what makes this a standout. Every frame is carefully composed. Pawlikowski and his cinematographers, Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, often frame their characters cut off at the bottom of the screen, with wide open skies above them. At other times, they create rich tableaus augmented by gorgeous shadows and swaths of light. Imagine a Vermeer painting stripped of its color and you'll get the idea. The camera rarely is moved unless clearly motivated, forcing the viewer to live with the characters. Its final shot is startling because it's handheld, forcing the viewer to wonder why. The fact that you have to answer that question yourself speaks volumes about its director honoring his audience. Offscreen space is just as important as what you see. The director doesn't always feel the need to cut to what a character is looking at, as he assumes you're smart enough to piece things together. Refreshing, no? One memorable example of that allows a character to walk offscreen and return to a bit of shocking action. You're in the hands of a filmmaker who truly understands the impact of each image he presents. Its no-frills approach extends to its use of sound, making the clanking of soup spoons or a Coltrane sax solo more startling than it would have been if it were competing with the myriad sounds we are used to hearing in studio blockbusters. Same goes for the dialogue. Rarely is it on the nose and rarely do its characters explain everything. A look. A glance. The way someone holds a cigarette. How two characters look off in the distance with very different points of view. A woman prays at a gravesite with an expanse of desolate Polish landscape behind her. Every frame is worthy. Without spoiling anything, IDA unfolds like a mystery. Two very different lives come together and deeply affect each other. Although merely 80 minutes long, IDA has a measured pace. Some will be bored, others mesmerized. Count me among those who savored this tough yet fulfilling little gem.
32 days ago via Flixster