I went into Ida with virtually no expectations, knowing only the one-line synopsis and that the cinematography was supposed to be particularly sublime. In retrospect, this approach may not have been the best one, which I was able to ascertain mere minutes into the film. Ida takes the same approach as a number of other films on the list, in that we open in on the characters’ lives in medias res, as if we already know what we need to know about them before we’ve even started the film; indeed, after the listing of production companies, the only opening title is a single card that says Ida in all caps, and then the film almost smash cuts into the main character’s life of absolute quiet and stillness of being, assuming we already know who is who and what their lives and personalities are already like. From there, there is almost no explanation at all into what goes on or what we are seeing, and like other List films that did this, I was slightly miffed throughout my viewing of Ida. It was about a half hour into the film that I was finally able to understand why this style of filmmaking (or, more accurately, storytelling) was rubbing me the wrong way; it goes about its business and follows its characters around with absolutely no reason for doing so, making their protagonists completely unsympathetic as a result. We are not invested in our main character at all, because there is no reason to be, no connection made between us and the people on the screen. It is as clinical as a routine medical exam, and ends up being just as entertaining as a result. Now, I probably should’ve saved some of that condemnation for the middle or closing paragraphs instead of opening with it, because there are some bits of Ida that were enjoyable. Unfortunately, everything I just said about the cold, clinical feel of the film was looming over my head during every second of Ida’s 82-minute running time, to the point that even the enjoyable bits weren’t as pleasing as they otherwise should have been.
Anna is a Catholic nun, living her monastic life in a Polish convent sometime after WWII. One day, she is sent off by the convent mother to meet her aunt, who reveals that Anna is in fact Ida Lebenstein, a Jewish orphan of two parents killed during the German occupation. Together, Anna/Ida’s aunt takes her outside the convent to try and find out what exactly became of the young nun’s family, as well as to show the orphan a side of life that she admits to having no knowledge of before she takes her vows for good. I’ll start off with the obvious; Ida’s cinematography was definitely the main selling point of the film, but only mostly because there was virtually no other selling point to it. Right from the opening shot, the fact that the film was in the 4:3 aspect ratio was fired into my brain like a bullet; I guess I’ve become far too accustomed to the widescreen formats today’s films almost always employ, so having a film come through a much more square-shaped screen was almost disconcerting. Another aspect of the cinematography that was strikingly evident from the opening minutes is director Pawel Pawlikowski’s penchant for abstract framing; much like Wadjda did, the actors are almost always on the edges or the corners of the frame, as opposed to being in the center or on the thirds of the image. Not every shot was like this, though, which made it even more confusing as to why Pawlikowski would choose to do so, especially only occasionally. As for the actual meat of the film itself, there didn’t really seem to be any, which given that the film was less than an hour-and-a-half long made for an unusually tedious watch. The whole proceeding seemed to be extremely mechanical, as if the film was merely following instructions by rote and not because the filmmakers had any passion for the story or anything of the kind. I was reminded often of Robert Bresson’s film Balthazar; that cold, aloof, robotic storytelling that had nothing of substance to it, and thus elicited no feelings or emotions out of its audience, or me at the very least. In terms of meat to its story and its storytelling, Ida is a walking skeleton; fully ambulatory, but with no actual reason for walking around. It was even more incomprehensible when the film decided to try its hand at including actual consequences and repercussions following the journey of the two main women, only (in my eyes) for the events themselves to be wholly and entirely without any punch or effect to them; the film had done absolutely nothing to warrant any reaction from me as a viewer, no matter what was going on, and after it was all over, I was left with an all-encompassing thought in my head: “Why, really, was I made to watch this film?” That’s not a thought that should be in my head after watching a film from the List, even one freshly added in the past year.
I want to reiterate the Robert Bresson comparison I made earlier; Pawlikowski definitely seemed like he was trying his damnedest to make a modern-day Bresson film with this, and Ida does come across very much as a wannabe Bresson, copying instead of understanding what made a Bresson film what it was and why they were and are as revered as they have been. Now, I say that despite not being much of a fan of Bresson’s filmmaking, one or two exceptions aside, so for Ida to come along and try and appeal to a side of cinephile that particularly doesn’t exist within me was a little underwhelming, even with my admitted lack of expectations going into the film. Sure, the cinematography was pretty good, even if there didn’t seem to be any reason why behind most of it, but for once, good cinematography didn’t alone carry me through a film; quite the contrary, as even at a scant 82 minutes, I was left severely undersatisfied with Ida. I haven’t seen the other films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this past year, but I’d be surprised if not one of them managed to top Ida in several departments, with the exception of cinematography, which is why I suspect this ended up winning over any of them. Still, I can’t give this a recommendation, even with the cinematography; it was just too empty, and it seems that I like my films to have some actual substance to them instead of being vacuous enough to where my brain fills in the empty holes with whatever comes to mind. Oh well.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10