If a more serious Jim Jarmusch made a film about a teenage nun in 1960s Poland the result might be close to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. Shot in square, black and white long takes, Ida is named after its cloistered but wide-eyed heroine (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun-in-training released from her convent after learning she was born Jewish and given up for adoption. Alone in Warsaw she meets her only surviving relative, a jaded, boozed-up Stalinist judge, lent a mischievous charm by Agata Kulesza, who also happens to be Ida’s aunt and a nighttime hedonist. Together, the odd-couple take a road trip across the Polish steppe in search of their past.
“I wanted to make a film about very universal themes,” Pawlikowski told me during his recent trip to New York. “There wasn’t a journalistic reason for talking about that period in Polish history. But I suppose I wanted to make a film about the world I knew as a boy, a world I experienced very vividly.” The 57-year old director, best known for his work in documentary, was born in Poland but left when he was only fourteen. He lived first Germany, then Italy, and finally England, where he was based until his recent return to his native Warsaw.
As for Ida’s minimalist look? “This is less a story film,” Pawlikowski said, looking something like a modern Samuel Becket in sunglasses. “It’s more of a meditation. I wanted to make something to look at, to take in and absorb. I didn’t shoot it narrative-style. It’s quite lapidary.” The off-kilter framing and ruminative long-takes give the vacant plains, as well as the pale faces of the cast, a ghostly yet refreshing sublimity.
“This kind of film has a certain kind of audience,” the director said. “I think everywhere there are some people who have a craving for simplicity and silence. The world is so hectic and out of control, and films especially. Audio-visual culture constantly fights for your attention, tries to grab it and keep it. It’s noise and colors and movement, cut-cut-cut.” The director made a chopping motion, while outside the hotel room where we spoke, the midtown traffic was whizzing by.
Ida, which won the FIPRESCI prize at Toronto and opens today in New York, is anything but noisy. The film works like a visual tuning fork, clearing a space for quiet contemplation and a hushed innocence.