This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
The 2013 Polish film Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is a beautifully shot film of devastating emotional power. The film tells the story of a young woman’s personal awakening as she comes to grips with her past, her family, and aspects of herself she has deeply buried.
Set in Poland in 1962, Ida opens with its title character preparing to take her vows as a Catholic nun. Before she can do so, her prioress informs her she must visit her aunt, Wanda, her only living relative and a woman Ida has very little interest in seeing. Her prioress insists, and Ida sets out to visit this woman who is her diametrical opposite in every way–Wanda is an alcoholic, heavy-smoking, sexually liberated woman of the world who serves as a judge sentencing enemies of the state and their sympathizers to their deaths. The only thing the two women have in common is despair. They embark on a road trip to uncover the truths of their family history, and in the process Ida faces up to the lies that have governed both her aunt’s life and Ida’s own sense of self, and she must come to peace with these if she is to take her vows in good conscience.
The film is shot in moody but gorgeous black and white, and it’s a sight to behold. If the movie offered nothing else (and it offers plenty), it is one of the most visually striking films of recent years. Pawlikowski, with cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski (Lukasz Zal took over when Lenczewski fell ill), made the unusual choice to not only shoot in black and white, but in a 1.33:1 “Full Screen” aspect ratio. The vast majority of theatrically released films today are shot in a much wider aspect ratio, though 1.33:1 was once the standard. The filmmakers used this tighter aspect ratio for Ida expressly to evoke an older age of cinema, specifically Polish films from the 1960s. The use of longer takes, static cameras, and precise, photographic framing leads to some truly incredible shots. There are countless frames of this film that could be printed and hung on a wall as beautiful photographs.
Let’s look for a moment at one simple shot from the film. In the scene this shot comes from, Ida and Wanda arrive at the farmhouse Ida was born in and ask the woman who now lives there if they can ask her some questions. The woman is suspicious and tells them to come back when her husband is present. She tends to her baby while this is happening. Ida and Wanda agree to return later. Here’s a shot from this scene:
This is simple but perfect framing. The left wall of the house and the roof line frame in the characters. Every right angle of the house is perfectly squared to the camera’s perspective. The post supporting the porch roof symbolically divides Ida and Wanda on the left from the mother and baby on the right. The wire in the upper left corner and the clothesline in the upper right corner further focus the attention of the eyes to the center of the shot. The only other slanted lines in the shot are directly behind a suspicious woman who has something to hide and is unsure what to do. The sheet on the clothesline blows in front of her face, alternately revealing and concealing her from the camera, mirroring her role in the scene: who is she and what don’t we know about her? All of these framing techniques are direct and simple but perfectly, seamlessly executed in such a way as to serve their purpose without showing off and drawing attention to themselves.
Now let’s look at a few of the wider landscape shots in the film. Here are two examples:
These are beautiful images, if somewhat bleak. Both are perfect compositions. In the first, the distance from the characters on the field is just right relative to perspective to allow them to be bisected by the horizon, their heads under the line of distant trees and the lowest branches of the nearer trees to the left. They are exposed in a vast openness, yet the intimacy and claustrophobia of the woods in hinted at by these two elements, and the furrows of the field further frame them in. In the second, we have another vast image that is mostly sky with a completely open distant horizon, yet nearly all the detail of the shot is tightly held in a triangle from the car to the sun to the lamp post. In both shots we have wide open spaces and sky that would be easy to get visually lost in, and yet they’re so perfectly composed and framed we have no trouble focusing our attention on the relevant action while still taking in the landscape.
Now let’s look at a shot from the scene in which Ida and Wanda first meet:
Ida is on the left side of the screen, the side we’re historically used to good characters being introduced from, while Wanda is on the right, the side we’re used to antagonists being introduced from. Wanda is not a “bad guy” in the film, but she does bring complexity, worldiness, and temptation into Ida’s life, and her vices, while relatively minor, are a quiet offense to Ida. At the same time, Ida is somewhat intimidated by Wanda, and in the shot above Wanda is slightly elevated over the seated Ida, her head above the horizontal line on the wall while Ida’s is below it. Wanda is loose and relaxed, leaning against the window, smoking, wearing a robe. Ida is stiffly seated and is still wearing her buttoned-up traveling coat and her habit. The light is squarely on her face, illustrating her guileless innocence and naivety, while Wanda’s face is in shadow, corresponding to her world-weariness, her secrets, her vices, her fatigue. It’s all simple stuff, but effective and visually pleasing.
The only thing Ida and Wanda have in common in this movie beyond familial heritage is their despair. Ida has seen nothing of the world. Wanda has seen too much. The performances of Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida and Agata Kulesza as Wanda are breathtaking. This is especially remarkable from Trzebuchowska when we take into account she had no acting experience at all before this film and no intention of ever acting. Pawlikowski auditioned over four hundred actresses before the role and found no one he felt would work. A friend saw Trzebuchowska in a coffeeshop reading a book and called him. Her subtlety in this role, the depth and complexity of feeling in her eyes and still face, is astounding.
GPL’s Third Floor Film Series will be screening Ida on Thursday, March 24, at 7 pm. I’ll be leading the screening and hosting a short discussion after the film. As always, free pop, coffee, candy, and fresh popcorn will be provided. I sincerely hope you’ll join us to watch this startling film, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the year of its release. You won’t be disappointed.