Ida (aka Sister of Mercy) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Ida follows 18-year-old Anna, an orphan raised in a convent with quiet dignity and frustration. Living in the snowy setting of 1960’s Poland, she readies herself for her final vows to become a nun. But before taking the final plunge, Mother Superior decrees that she should visit her remaining relatives. It just so happens that her only kin is aunt Wanda, a cynical drunk and louse of a woman. She is so miserable and spiteful of the prim and proper Anna that she can’t wait to reveal that Anna’s real name is Ida and that she had Jewish parents. Realizing her parents were murdered during Nazi occupation with no account for their bodies, the two of them set off on a road trip for some somber closure.
The two mismatched family members travel to several gut-wrenching locations of their past to find the clues of their relatives’ whereabouts. They venture back to the old family house where many lost memories are attempted to be unearthed. While they follow up on a lead about the aged and dying killer of Ida’s parents, Ida and Wanda stay in a hotel with musical entertainment downstairs. While Ida befriends one of the musicians, Wanda continues to mock the poor girl for her religious ethics and morals. In between her drunken rants, there is some truth to her words about Anna gaining more life experience. The world may seem cruel from Wanda’s perspective, but it doesn’t mean that Ida needs to swear her loyalty so early in her life which may just be beginning.
As Wanda sinks deeper into her alcoholic and whoring abyss, Ida slowly starts to come out of her shell from within the church. Their worlds of emotional strength are put to the test as they zero in on the burial site of their Jewish relatives. This is not a film where two women bond over their adventure, but meet at the halfway point in their lives as one goes up and the other down. They have a very brief moment of connection before the depressing facts reveal themselves and change their lives forever. It doesn’t help that they also have to deal with these issues in the face of a new wave of socialism.
While Ida is an interesting enough story to follow, it’s a technical marvel of film that elevates its subject matter far higher. The whole movie was shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio and in black and white. Every shot features the characters occupying the bottom of the screen with the environment overpowering them at every turn. All of these elements give the film a very claustrophobic feel where there is little control over the current state of 1960’s Poland.
Several of the locations feel like they take place in giant structures too big for this world. Ida walks out of the office of Mother Superior with an exit that looks more like a steep entrance to a mansion. She climbs a flight of stairs that appear as though they could go up for miles. The shots in the hotel almost feel as though everyone is sinking and shrinking from such spacious living quarters. I’m not sure how much of these sets were just built that way or if there was some fancy camera work involved. Part of me doesn’t want to know and let the film remain a mysterious beauty of the medium.
The film was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and it is the first time he’s shot a film in his native country of Poland. He left the communist country in 1971 when he was 14 and proceeded to make movies in the UK. I’m unsure how much of his personal perspective on the political and historical climate of Poland from his youth was translated into the film’s themes. One thing is for sure: Pawlikowski delivers a very personal film that perfectly conveys the cold isolation of both the bitter winter weather and the crushing psychological toll of past atrocities. Ida is a beautifully sad and dark journey of a woman finally beginning her life of freedom and a woman ending her life of sin. It can best be summed up in a peculiar moment of Ida witnessing a stained glass window in a barn; beautiful artistry amid cow manure. Ida is a haunting experience that sticks with you long after the final frame and makes me that much more drawn to a second viewing just to take it all in once more.