Summer is not noted for bringing great foreign films to New Orleans. Even theaters that regularly present nonmainstream fare lean toward blockbusters when the weather gets hot (but popular movies can subsidize the presentation of other films during the long festival season). All of this helps make the arrival of Polish-born, British-based director Pawel Pawlikowski's masterful Ida the rarest of summer pleasures.
Ida's reputation precedes it: The film won the top prize at five major international film festivals and swept the Polish Film Awards. It has been named Poland's official entry to next year's Academy Awards. That's a lot of acclaim for an 80-minute, black-and-white drama about the aftermath of the holocaust in Poland. But Ida is neither as relentlessly bleak nor as arty as that description sounds. The fictional story of a young novitiate nun in 1962 Poland who discovers she's Jewish shortly before taking her vows, Ida offers a meditation on the nature of identity and self-discovery. Its spare and innovative visual style gives it the power of a treasured family-photo album suddenly sprung to life. The overall effect is that of a miniature, a work of art that's small in stature but rich in meaning. Ida may be the most accomplished film of the year so far — foreign or American-made.
Pawlikowski initially had trouble casting the film's crucial title role but found reluctant newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska when a filmmaker friend spotted her in a Parisian cafe. Her unaffected innocence makes her the ideal foil for seasoned Polish actress Agata Kulesza, who plays Anna, a world-weary courtroom judge with her own complicated past and the aunt Ida never knew she had. Together, they embark on a road trip to uncover the secrets of a shared family history. Using a squarish format and naturalistic light that recall the early days of film, Pawlikowski tells their story through minimal dialogue and what almost seems a series of beautifully rendered, high-contrast still photographs. His camera never moves until the film's final pair of shots. The framing of each image is unlike anything previously seen on film, with subjects often placed at the bottom of the screen to accommodate vast skies or deep interiors above. The daring visual style manages to support the emotional content of each scene, making traditional, action-oriented camera work seem needlessly ornate and showy by comparison.
Controversy has followed Ida just as it did Aftermath, another recent and powerful Polish film that addresses Polish-Jewish relations during and immediately following World War II. Any film using real-world events from that time and place as a setting for fictional storytelling inevitably becomes a flashpoint for heated debate. But Ida's greatest strength can be found in the intimate nature of its story. There are no history lessons here, just timeless questions of cultural identity and spiritual fulfillment. It's not often that a film mainly inspires quiet contemplation and leaves room for that to become central to the experience of seeing it.