For his latest film, Pawel Pawlikowski takes the term “negative space” to wonderfully literal and figurative extremes. His first film to be shot in his native Poland after two decades of working in the UK (on films like Last Resort, My Summer of Love, and The Woman in the Fifth), Ida marks a return to the austerity of his earliest fictional work while simultaneously tapping into a formidable amount of personal emotion. It’s a film made in the present and set in the past that bears the weight of history bearing down upon its every frame.
In 1962 Poland, a young woman named Anna (Agata Trezbuchowska, in her first acting credit) is about to take her vows as a nun. Orphaned at a young age during World War II, Anna is tasked by her mother superior to seek out her only living relative, a former high profile judge named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) with no time for religion, politics, or her niece. When Wanda drops a bombshell on Anna – telling her the truth about her secret Jewish heritage and that her real name is Ida – the uneasy duo set out for answers regarding the deaths of her parents.
Shooting in full-frame black and white might suggest that Pawlikowski is going for a period appropriate aesthetic and a certain degree of humility and economy. While there’s certainly a great deal of humility to his shooting style, the framing chosen by Pawlikowski acts as a character within the narrative. People appear small in their surroundings, often pushed to the bottom corners of frames while they speak or go about their business, and in a few rare cases they are distressingly floating above everything. The few times a character is perfectly centred within the small frame, it usually means that a major change is about to take place with them and quite often those changes won’t be for the better.
This framing and use of “negative space” is haunting for many reasons. It’s indicative of everything that still remains unsaid in Poland, both in the 1960s and today. The conflict between 1960s Communism and 1940s fascism has created a vacuum in this world where a heavy kind of ether swirls above the characters, almost judging them and daring them to fill the space. It keeps threatening to push the now culturally confused Ida and the disillusioned Wanda out of the margins the world has already created for them. The air above them is one of negativity; a world where neither will be able to succeed because of their heritage and a current climate that’s reluctant to accept what they have gone through, witnessed, and been forced to do in the aftermath of the war. The space might be blank – occasionally punctuated by pictures, sunlight, open skies, or blank walls – but such is the distancing that has been created.
It’s a mournful and deep way to present such subject matter, and a bold move to deliberately make it seem like everything is off in this depiction of Poland at all times, but it’s nothing if not deeply heartfelt and genuine. Pawlikowski writes and directs his scenarios with a great deal of conviction. His camera doesn’t move very much, so the potential misery and confusion of his leads comes across as unwavering without overstaying its welcome. There’s very little to be nostalgic about and the actual scenario isn’t where the art lies, so he feels less content to dwell on things simply to make a stylistic point. People say what they need to say or choose when to bite their tongues, nothing more and nothing less. A hotel room theological showdown between a sauced Wanda and a quietly reflective Anna and the final conversation between the two travellers are powerfully intimate moments that underline the connection of these two women through hardship. The exchange of words between these two well matched actors (especially the world weary and soulful Kulesza) is perfect.
Despite a shocking twist leading into the film’s final act, the only point where Ida stumbles comes down the stretch when things take a turn towards the predictable. It’s pretty obvious that Pawlikowski can’t end things on a happy and tidy note, but while the actual ending doesn’t trod upon the film’s already low key vibe in favour of a major emotional catharsis, he’s definitely dropping hints less than subtly along the way. Then again in a film where the air is so thick with the unseen, unspoken, regret driven ghosts of the past, maybe it makes sense in a way that the story’s skeleton should show so openly.