Monthly Must See: Agata Trzebuchowska in Pawel Pawlikowski's 'Ida'
by Alex Billington
September 22, 2014
"You have no idea of the effect you have, do you?" It's time for yet another Monthly Must See feature film that we highly recommend you watch. This one may be one a few have seen already, considering it's rotating through the Top Movies list on iTunes. The film is titled Ida starring the lovely Agata Trzebuchowska, from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. This intriguing Polish drama first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, before playing at festivals all over the world and eventually arriving in US theaters for a limited release back in May. Shot and presented in black & white in the 1.37:1 'Academy ratio', this stunning film tells the story of a young nun named Ida in 1960s Poland discovering herself and the world.
The film will not only help Polish actress Agata Trzebuchowska (who plays Ida) earn some major offers for additional breakout roles after this, but it's an excellent feature that deserves all the attention and accolades it has already received. Pawlikowski has crafted a fantastic film with awards-worthy cinematography by co-DPs Ryszard Lenczewski & Lukasz Zal that will be studied for years to come. It fits in nicely with the current subgenre of films about women, young and old, being free to express and be themselves in society. And it's actually quite entertaining and fun at times, which is a remarkable feat considering the traditional black & white presentation. But that's what makes the film so unique, and why it's a must watch. There's much to admire about the work in this and it's a short film. Give it a chance even if you're hesitant at first.
Pawlikowski's Ida is the latest "Monthly Must See" film following Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox and David Mackenzie's Starred Up so far. At this point, some of these may be arriving more than monthly as I find that there are some films I just can't help talking about. And as soon as they come to mind, all I want to do is write about them and get the word out there about how great they are. Many of them premiere at festivals and wait year for release, but they're all worth waiting for no matter what. Thankfully this one, Ida, is available on every VOD sites already. That's always the best - when it's readily available everywhere.
Why watch this film? What makes it so good?
Simply put - it's a beautiful film. From the cinematography to the star herself, along with the message and its cinematic elegance, Ida is the epitome of a film that can be defined as beautiful. My colleague Jordan Hoffman called it a "beautiful puzzle" in his glowing review on Badass Digest, adding that it's "one of the most striking visual experiences of the year. As luck would have it, the rest of the movie takes the mood this creates and runs with it… The 1960s are about to happen and beneath Anna's habit is a newly developed woman without any experiences other than quiet prayer." At brisk running time of only 82 minutes, it's worth watching to soak up that beauty and get lost in its mesmerizing story about the freedom of expression.
For those worried they may be bored by a black & white film about a nun, that's the great thing about Ida - it's awesome. There's nothing to worry about. There's a sense of humor to the film that makes it so much of an engaging experience. That's what's so impressive about Ida, it's crafted in a way that you'll fall for the characters, almost as if you're nearby hoping you'll make them smile, and be curious about where they're going. While at the same time, there's so much to appreciate about everything around them: in the framing and in the context of the time it's set in, what she's going through internally, and how it represents a feeling many people have even today. I love the way it subtly handles the outcome of her toughest decisions.
What I really admire is the way the film meticulously uses so many forms of its own unique expression to address in cinematic wonder the humanly desire for expression. It doesn't have to speak your own language for you to understand what it's saying, and why/who is feeling what they're feeling. It doesn't need to show you color for you to understand what the colors look like. That's the beauty of Ida, it really is a film that achieves so much through stylistic choices and narrative choices that guide the viewer rather than shove any ideas down their throat. It lets us appreciate the beauty of it while enjoying the choices she makes that make us think about our own choices. Something only great cinema, in all its life-affirming glory, can achieve.
What are other critics saying about it?
Film critic Dana Stevens for Slate.com writes in her review: "There isn't a frame of Ida (which was shot in the classic, squared-off 1.37:1 'Academy ratio' by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) that isn't composed with superb artistry and attention to detail. Pawlikowski, a U.K.-based director working for the first time in his native Poland, likes to use natural light coming in through a window, and many of his images, especially in the early scenes at the monastery, are as crisp and luminous as Vermeer paintings drained of color. He often places characters low in the frame, as if to emphasize their humility or insignificance in the grander scheme of history—his sense of composition is almost Japanese at times… The truths this young nun and her aunt discover in the Polish countryside are terrible, but the journey they undertake together to unearth those secrets is hauntingly beautiful. Take it with them."
A.O. Scott makes bold comparisons for NY Times in his review of the film: "This is almost literally true, thanks to Lukasz Zal & Ryszard Lenczewski's beautifully misty, piercingly sharp monochrome cinematography. The look of Ida — images captured by a mostly stationary camera in the boxy frame associated with old movies — serves an obvious period function. What you are watching could virtually have been made in 1962. (The Polish countryside seems to have cooperated by not changing too much in the decades since.) Until the very end, the audience never hears music unless the people on screen hear it, too, and many of the scenes — at once austere and charged with an intensity that verges on the metaphysical — owe an evident debt to '60s cinema heroes like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson."
Praise from Ann Hornaday for Washington Post in her review: "Each and every detail accrues to create a vivid, unforgettable portrait, and all are absorbed and reflected by Anna, portrayed by Trzebuchowska with the transparency and wonder of a woman for whom not just history but secular life itself is almost totally abstract. She's the ideal foil for Ida's gnarliest themes, which play out with messy immediacy in the life of her aunt, a woman haunted by the cumulative effects of accommodating the most disastrous chapters of Poland's political history… Ida, like the recent Romanian film Child's Pose, joins a slew of films from the former Eastern Bloc that seek to create something coherent and honest from a bewildering and painful past. Pawlikowski has proven to be an exceptionally sensitive and poetic master of that form."
From user "EephusPitch" discussing its themes on the IMDb boards: "This is, literally and figuratively, a very quiet movie. The themes are huge, but the presentation is never strident. The arguments are very calmly placed in front of us, there is no special pleading; and the score reflects this… In Something Like an Autobiography, Akira Kurosawa expresses concern for the plight of Takashi Shimura, a wonderful actor, who Kurosawa felt was overshadowed by Toshiro Mifune in Drunken Angel. Something analogous occurred to me here: Agata Kulesza turns in a yeoman-like performance as the slightly jaded Wanda: but Agata Trzebuchowska absolutely seizes the camera, and never lets it go. She is just compulsively watchable."
What should viewers look for to discuss about it?
It's all about the cinematography. Look for the patterns in the background, and the way certain frames evoke certain feelings. How a person's location in reference to the room makes all the difference. There is so much beauty captured in these frames, it's remarkable to see. But it's also about the depth of emotions the characters are feeling, what they're going through. It's a rough story, with its ups and downs, but there's so much conveyed through saying so little in dialogue. The magic of Ida lies in way the film uses the language (and many tools) of cinema to paint such a vivid picture of this life, and tell such an interesting story. Look closely, and you may find even more in there to discuss. There's so much color beneath all the black & white.
Monthly Must See: We follow up with this discussion next month and highlight another great underseen film to watch. Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy Pawel's Ida. If you do, pls tell others about it.
From Last Time: We hope you did your homework, movie fans! Following up our last Monthly Must See for Starred Up with Jack O'Connell, what did you think - did it live up to expectations? Was the violence too much? Are you now as big of a fan of Jack O'Connell as we are? Tell us your thoughts! And keep watching!