It’s hard not to think of Chicago’s Polish population when a Polish film manages to break through the art-house circuit to receive a modest marketing push. Chicago’s reputation as a hub for Polish heritage has been long accounted for as the city bills itself as housing the most Poles outside of Poland itself. But Polish cinema, for over a decade, has largely been an outlier within Chicago theaters. Beyond Krzysztof Kieślowski’s presence in the 80s and early 90s, Polish cinema simply hasn’t received much play beyond special screenings within the Polish community. While it may be unfair to shoulder the legacy of an entire country’s cinema upon one individual, it does appear that Pawel Pawlikowski’s efforts have slowly gained traction - every subsequent effort looks to be greeted with increasing critical affection. His new film, Ida, looks to be the commercial breakthrough that he, and the country, may be striving for.
Ida deals with a post-war Poland that observes the friction found between Jews and non-Jews in the country. Shot in black-and-white, the film emphasizes rigid visual congruity as a thematic device. Its effect is two-fold. With two characters, a young Jewish nun (the titular Ida) and her loner aunt, the film utilizes its heavily structured framing when focusing on the nun. A dichotomy is established as Pawlikowski tends to only allow Ida to occupy a small portion of the visual frame while maintaining a tightly composed backdrop. Her aunt is usually shot in close-up, often times with the black hues darker and harsher. Thematically, this emphasis sheds light on the differences between them. One’s of spiritual inclination and has followed a path that is difficult for her to deviate from (ergo, the tightly composed visuals) whereas the other is unsure of her trajectory and seems to be in constant flux. The film goes so far as to delineate monikers for the two of them, with the aunt character suggesting that their travels are that of “the saint and the slut”.
Despite the richness of its visual compositions, Ida is encumbered by narrative stagnation. Beyond being an exercise in oppositional forces, the film’s central conceit of a nun reconciling her Jewish roots and past in war-time Poland is never given any sense of gravitas. So much of her journey and rediscovery strikes as dramatically inert. And eventually, the repetitious visual design grows tiresome, even as the film’s ace sequence (a handheld shot of its title character trudging away) complicates the heavily structured compositions that Pawlikowski provided beforehand. But to describe the film as skeletal would be best - there’s simply not enough to justify the picture’s already limited 80-minute length.