Ida rather be a nun

Polish import Ida offers a stark drama set in the 1960s.

click to enlarge Agata Trzebuchowska stars as Ida in Pawel Pawlikowski's stark film. - Courtesy of Music Box Films
Courtesy of Music Box Films
Agata Trzebuchowska stars as Ida in Pawel Pawlikowski's stark film.

NOTE: Ida has been held over at the Tampa Theatre and will play at least through July 2.

It’s been something of a rough month in the Bardi household, with several members of my family dealing with heavy personal issues. While these aren’t my tragedies, per se, they each have taken their toll in different ways. Life can be a motherfucker sometimes, even when you’re just a bystander.

This is something that the title character in Ida knows only too well. Orphaned as a baby during World War II and raised by clergy her entire life, Ida’s (Agata Trezbuchowska) whole world is the convent, and as the film opens she’s performing her duties and getting ready to take her vows. Before committing to God, however, the Mother Superior thinks it a good idea for Ida to find out something about her past. Ida has an aunt (which is news to her) and the Mother sends the young nun out for a visit to dig into her family history.

Ida’s Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is her polar opposite: a hard-drinking, chain-smoking woman with a penchant for sloppy hook-ups. Wanda is ice cold to her niece when she first turns up on her doorstep, but these people are family — the only family either of them has — and she slowly starts to warm to the girl. And by “warm” I mean she seems to make a decision to at least tolerate Ida’s presence. And she starts to share the girl’s history with her, starting with the fact that the young nun was born a Jew.

The pair soon set off on a trip through Poland looking to find the final resting place of Ida’s parents, and their journey forms the bulk of the film. (With a running time of only 80 minutes, it’s something of a quick, though no less grueling, trip.) I’ll reveal none of it, as much of the power of Ida comes from making disturbing discoveries about her past right along with the character.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski shoots his film in beautiful black and white, which suits the stark material. In addition, Pawlikowski frames almost every shot in a distinct way, providing an absurd amount of headroom above the characters. It’s as if God Himself is hovering, watching over his damaged children. I found it fascinating, but don’t go in looking for a good time.

Ida is not an easy watch, but it’s also one of those quintessential “Tampa Theatre movies.” You go to the classic movie palace, you take in an under the radar movie, and then afterward you head to Fly Bar or Pizza Fusion and have a conversation about it. There are no easy answers, only lingering questions about God, the cruelty of existence and how much pain a person can endure before they shut down and lose themselves in whatever distractions present themselves. Yet I found Ida oddly uplifting, if only because it laid bare the fact that my pain is slight compared to the suffering of others. I’m really quite blessed, and the crazy thing is that I bet Ida feels the same way.

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