AJFF Review: “Ida” (***½)

Agata Trzebuchowska stars as Ida in “Ida”

The 2014 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has drawn to a close, but the films it featured press on. Enter “Ida,” director Pawel Pawlikowski’s career’s first foray into his native Poland. Filmed in a black-and-white square aspect ratio, Pawlikowski’s screenplay is nearly upstaged by Lukasz Zal’s and Ryszard Lenczewski’s striking visual direction, which is beautifully upstaged by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska. At first she plays Anna—a young soon-to-be nun encouraged by the Mother to become acquainted with her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).
Wanda wastes no time imparting life-changing truth: Anna is not Anna at all. Her name is Ida. And Ida is not Catholic, but Jewish. Her parents were murdered during WWII. Ida has questions, but Wanda doesn’t have all the answers. The two take a trip across Poland on a search for the rest. What they find pulls not only Ida’s but Wanda’s identity into question, and the results threaten to be more than either can handle.
Agata Kulesza and Trzebuchowska in “Ida” 

Two facets in particular radiate magnetic strength: cinematography and performance. Never have I seen black-and-white film employed so intuitively. Zal’s and Lenczewski’s use of light is an apt metaphor. Each woman’s struggles with God, family, and self produce grey areas amid seemingly clear boundaries. The contrast between light and dark is as stark as the contrast between truth and lie. This cohesion projects an eerie and somber clarity in which both actresses bask. Their exclusive but distant bond pulls from each woman believable effort to maintain such a connection. If not moved by their exchanges, wait for the silences.

I mourned the frequent lack of music and felt, in the scenes without much light or sound, as though I was crawling, but my feelings of isolation and impatience became fodder for character understanding; as they continue to unfold, they exhibit the same.
“Ida” asks ‘What if?’ What if Ida’s not ready to take her vows? What if the only family Ida has doesn’t want her? What if she can’t find her parents’ grave? And ultimately, Wanda’s question, “What if you go there and you discover there is no God?” My favorite What if? “What if we start seeing a lot more of Agata Trzebuchowska?”
3.5 out of 5 stars.

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