On the eve of taking her vows Anna, a young novice nun, is made to visit her only living relative, a tough alcoholic aunt named Wanda. Wanda’s reckless lifestyle is in stark contrast to Anna’s reliance on order and faith but, after revealing that Anna was born into a Jewish family, Wanda takes the young girl on a road trip to find her parents’ resting place.
Ida won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Film and it’s extremely hard to argue against it. Every shot of this movie is stunning, from the black-and-white cinematography to the matter-of-fact way in which the story progresses. This isn’t a film of thrills and big set-pieces – it’s a brief snapshot into real lives, told quietly but with a matter-of-factness that is at times heartbreaking.
What really stands out about the movie, however, is the narrative approach taken by the filmmakers. Ida could easily have followed the typical broken-character-comes-good model, and would arguably still have been a great film. But in Anna, we have a character that isn’t really broken, but wants to experience that feeling. As she learns more about her true past and spends more time away from the church, we see her begin to change.
This isn’t done through exposition or great dialogue though – the facial expressions of Agata Kulesza (as Anna) are enough to tell the story. For a debutante, Kulesza is tremendous – so much is made clear just through the movement of her eyes, words aren’t necessary. Agata Trzebuchowska, as Wanda, is also brilliant in her role, bringing empathy and humanity to a character that could easily have been detestable.
Unsurprisingly, post-war displacement has been a recurring theme in Polish cinema, symptomatic of a country still trying to recover from the atrocities of the twentieth century. Both Wanda and Anna are searching for their place in the world. But the beauty of this movie, as well as its controversy, is that the solace is found away from religion, away from unity.
Ida may not necessarily end happily for the audience but, arguably, it ends happily for the main character. It’s a divisive conclusion but, regardless, it’s a fitting and beautiful end to a gorgeous movie.