Movie Review: Agata of God

The Polish film ‘Ida’ is a genuine gem.

‘Ida’ movie (photo credit: PR)
‘Ida’ movie
(photo credit: PR)
Pawel Pawkilowski’s Ida is on the just-announced short list of the nine films from which the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees will be drawn, and it is a real contender to win the prize. Ida is a wonderful film, with elegant, spare storytelling that will satisfy the most demanding cineaste, combined with a heartfelt, moving story. The plot has real suspense, and the performances by the two lead actresses are both outstanding. Ida is as close to a perfect movie as there can be.
The movie opens at a convent in Poland in 1962, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an enraptured, novitiate nun, is about to take her final vows. When her mother superior orders her to visit her only living relative, an aunt whom she has never met, before Anna commits to the order, Anna obeys but with no particular enthusiasm.
I’m not revealing anything that isn’t in the trailer when I say she is stunned to discover that her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is Jewish, that she herself is also a Jew, and that her parents perished in the Holocaust. Wanda, who struggles with alcoholism and is openly promiscuous, is not especially welcoming. Wanda is a judge and a Communist Party supporter, who still enjoys the perks of government protection – she owns a car, for example – in spite of a recent demotion. Wanda is content to show Anna a couple of snapshots and send her on her way. But when Anna, whose birth name is Ida, asks to visit her parents’ graves, Wanda agrees to take her to try to find where they are buried, knowing that this journey will take her back to a past she has done everything she can to forget.
Ida is Wanda’s story as much as it is Anna’s. Each woman would have preferred not to have met the other, but neither can withdraw once they are together. As they get closer to the details of the inevitably tragic ending to their family’s lives, the movie becomes transcendent. You may think you have seen this story before, but it’s much more than a Holocaust movie. It’s also a look at the failed promises of Communist Poland.
Wanda sought her escape from tragedy through Communism, but her niece forces her to reconnect to the truth of her life and to examine the corruption of the Poles who willingly helped the Nazis, which Wanda has tried to ignore.
Anna/Ida has opted for the church, one of the few escapes from the everyday grimness; but as she delves deeper into her true history and identity, she starts to change.
Director Pawlikowski, who been making acclaimed movies for more than a decade, among them the English-language My Summer of Love starring Emily Blunt, has never made a feature film in his native Poland before, and he has great feeling for the country: the landscapes, cityscapes and, especially, the faces. He has a great gift for economical storytelling. Ida is only 80 minutes long, but it packs so much detail and impact into its running time, it makes most movies seem bloated in comparison. Black-and-white cinematography is often a gimmick, but here the monochromatic images are the ideal complement to the story and elevate ordinary scenes to haunting beauty.
The two Agatas – Trzebuchowska and Kulesza – give vivid and appealingly natural performances.
You never notice either of them acting – they make their characters completely real. Trzebuchowska is new to movies – this is her debut – and she seems poised for international stardom. Kulesza gives one of the best performances, skilled and understated, that I’ve seen in years.
The terse screenplay will keep you guessing about where the story is heading, a rare feat in movies with a Holocaust theme.
This graceful film will stay with you long after you see it.