Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski. Poland, Denmark, France, U.K. 2013.

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Ida is the latest from Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) and his first feature made in his native Poland.  As such, it has proved a critical and (for an "art house" film) commercial success.    In France it has broken box-office records for any non-French or non-English language film, while in Poland, where films about Polish history have always been hugely popular, it has unsurprisingly proved a smash hit.  I predict that it will feature very strongly in critics' "best releases of 2014" lists, following its "best film" award at the 2013 London Film Festival.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is that, like the multi-Oscar-winning The Artist, it has the appearance of an old movie, in fact like one that might have been made in 1961, the year it is set.  In black-and-white and shot in Academy ratio, it is actually stunningly photographed, much of it in the wintry Polish countryside, with a mostly static camera.  Its themes are several: the relationship between Catholicism and Communism in 1960s Poland, the fate of the Jews and their historically uneasy relationship with other Poles, the personality clash between two very different women, the nature of commitment to a vocation.  The central character is Anna, a young nun, brought up in a convent, and about to take her final vows, who discovers that she was born a Jew named Ida (pronounced Eeda) and that her family were victims of the Holocaust.  Her only living relative is an aunt, who works as a judge for the Communist regime but seeks solace in alcohol and men.  These two women go in search of where and how Ida's family met their end (the film is what would now be called a road-movie) and, following an unexpected traumatic event, Ida has to decide whether to continue with her vocation.

The two leads are played superbly, Ida by a hypnotic newcomer, the aunt by a seasoned regular in Polish TV and cinema.  There is some great jazz music, John Coltrane style, once a third character, a young saxophonist, appears on the scene.  With its underlying spirituality and gleaming monochrome photography, Ida reminds this viewer, at least, of Robert Bresson's mid-period masterpieces, such as Mouchette.  And after two viewings, I think it is just as good.

Alan Pavelin

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