Seldom do I walk out of a movie with a ready opinion. I usually have to let a movie sink into me. I admire people who know what they like (or dislike) when they see it--and who know how to explain, almost instantly, why they like (or dislike) what they've seen. I'm just...slow. Takes me a while to take it all in.
There are exceptions. For whatever reason, I walked out of both THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) and DRIVE (2011) enraptured by what I'd just seen. Sometimes it's just love at first sight. Such was the case with Pawel Pawlikowski's IDA. This is the best movie I've seen this year. It is likely to be the best movie I see all year. It is one of the best movies, period, that I have ever seen. Forgive me if I'm gushing. I'm in love here.
The story is very simple. A young novitate nun named Anna, living in a Polish convent in the 1960s, is preparing to take her vows when her mother superior tells her that she has an aunt living in a nearby city. Anna goes to see her aunt, a hard-living middle-aged judge named Wanda, and Anna barely has time to sit down at the woman's kitchen table before Wanda drops a bombshell on her. They are Jewish, Anna's real name is Ida Lubenstein and her family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Together, the innocent young girl and the haunted older woman set out to find where the bodies of Ida's mother and father are buried.
There are more surprises in store in the story, but they arrive naturally, coming out of character. I leave them for you to discover. What matters here is the feel of this film, the quiet intensity that it establishes in its first frame and builds until its last.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski and his cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lucasz Zal have created a visual tour de force. IDA is shot almost exclusively in static frames, the camera perfectly positioned, setting up an unflinching gaze. (In its absolute mastery of mise-en-scene the film evokes memories of Bresson, and of Dreyer's later films.) Often shots are framed to emphasize space, with characters occupying the bottom, or even just the corners, of frames. This has an almost mystical effect, showing human beings dwarfed by human constructions like architecture, or by the sheer emptiness of the sky itself. The black and white photography here is beautiful without ever being pretty--it's both documentary-like but also has the feel of sixties European art house.
The film is largely a duet between Agata Kulesza as Wanda and Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, and both of them are pitch perfect. Wanda is a shattered woman, and Kulesza immediately locates both the strength that has kept her alive since the war as well as the pain that seems to be consuming her. This is as much a story of Wanda as it is a story of Ida. And as the young nun herself, Trzebuchowska is almost hypnotically still and quiet. She is possessed of huge, expressive eyes but she downplays everything, as Ida takes in the other woman's pain and adds it to what we intuit is a lifetime spent bringing her own emotions under a strictly observed control.
Part of what is fascinating about this film is Ida's almost silent faith. Just observing the set up of the film in its broadest outlines (a young nun discovers that she's Jewish) one might expect there to be long talks about the meaning of religion, or perhaps condemnations of Christianity's complicity in the Holocaust. This only occurs once, in a drunken outburst from Wanda, because the film is far more concerned with how human beings attempt to live with the past. (And, by extension, how countries made up of those human beings attempt to square their actions with some kind of national identity.) For IDA, these aren't matters of theology or law, these are matters of being.
At same point in the future, I'd like to write a piece on the meaning of the film's ending. I will wait for that, though. One, because I don't feel like revealing that ending to the world right now. I'd like to wait until more people have seen it. Two, although I have seen the film twice now, I want to see it again. It has mysteries and meanings still to reveal. What I will reveal, and what haunts me, is the way the film, in its last moments, finally moves. The camera, which has stayed still throughout the film, suddenly hurries because, for the first time, it has to rush to keep up with Ida herself.
If there is a way to see IDA in the theater, I suggest you don't miss the chance. It's a masterpiece.