It may seem a little expected and a little cliche that one of my favorite films of 2014 is a black-and-white foreign film of a quiet manner echoing Ingmar Bergman. But Ida is a film I can’t help but love for how it stuck in my brain with its unforgettable imagery and characters. Despite being a rather dreary drama about a bleak era in Poland, everything about this production kept me glued to the screen from its unique character studies to some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen all year.
The film follows the orphaned girl Anna of a Polish convent, readying herself to take her final vows as a nun. Having spent so much time devoting her life to Christ and knowing little of her lineage, Mother Superior recommends she takes time to visit her only living relative, aunt Wanda. This woman is everything Anna is not; she is a judge who spends her off hours drinking and sleeping with all sorts of men, damaged by the world she grew up with. But Wanda does have one big bombshell to deliver; Anna’s real name is Ida and her parents were Jewish. Her parents, murdered by Nazis during the war, were never accounted for. So Ida decides to take a trip around the snowy and gloomy countryside to find some closure in her parents’ secret resting place.
It’s a scenario that puts any awkward family road trip to shame for both the grand revelation, the dreadful end goal and the differing morals of the two women. Wanda constantly tests Ida by mocking her values in her various states of stupor. In all that downer babble, however, she does bring up one point that gets to her. How can you knock sin if you’ve never experienced the world outside a convent? Living a sheltered life in the convent, Ida has a very limited view of the world. She’s quiet, shy and very protective of her holy items.
But the more Ida explores the cold and cruel landscape of Poland, she starts to see the beauty and allure of it all. Wanda speaks of a barn they intend to visit in which her relatives would craft stained glass windows for. When Ida finally witnesses this bit of craftsmanship, she is quietly stunned by the sight. The presumably colorful light seeping through the elegant design says more than words ever could. But, just in case, Wanda perfectly describes it as beauty amid horse manure.
That is indeed what Ida finds in this world. Poland is not a good looking country from this perspective. It’s freezing, most of the locals are bitter individuals and the quest unearths nothing but heartbreaking closure. And, yet, there is some room to live a joyous life. While on their way to a hotel, the two women befriend a musician who will be playing at the same building. He’s an attractive boy and Ida finds herself somewhat consumed by his allure. She listens to his band and finds herself ever engrossed in such an individual. The constant taunting of Wanda drowning in booze makes her fearful of these new feelings, but all the more excited to take a leap into the unknown.
The cinematography of Ida sticks out in my mind most prominently in every way. Everything is shot to be deliberately boxy and large the way the characters occupy their world. The film was shot in the boxed 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the widescreen formats of current movies. I’m not sure where the director found these locations or what tricks he used with the camera, but every single exterior appears to tower over the characters.
Ida enters the offices of mother superior with the entrance featuring a flight of stairs that seems better suited for the upper entrance to a house. She later climbs what appears to be a giant set of stairs for an apartment complex. And the hotel she visits with Wanda is so barren to the point where a simple dining room appears like a spacious ballroom. What helps accomplish this as well is that the character never appear perfectly centered in shots. Every closeup forces the character so far down into a corner that they are just barely on the screen with the environment consuming them. The color choice of sticking to black and white provides a great contrast for the snowy setting. Life in this area appears cold and desolate as a country struggles to repair itself internally.
Ida, for all somber tones and sterile color, is amazing to witness for its masterful cinematography on a deeply emotional subject. For being a rather slow-burn of a road trip movie that only leads to heartache, there’s a strange sense of love and life amid all the depression of cold country trying to heal wounds. The more I talk about it, the more I just want to race back to my television and fiddle with the pause button to take it all in once more.