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Review: Ida

Logged on to Kanopy to watch Ida, a beautiful Polish movie about a young orphan who, at the behest of the Catholic nuns that raised her, ventures out into the world to meet her Aunt Wanda—partially to make peace with her last surviving relative, and partially to learn more about what she’ll be giving up before she takes her own vows and commits her life to serving God. She quickly discovers that her parents were Jews slain during the Nazi occupation, leading the unlikely duo on a journey to track down their corpses and properly lay them to rest; unbeknownst to Ida, however, her aunt has ulterior motives for embarking on their little road trip…

In terms of its visuals, the film reminds me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; the elegant simplicity of its style enriches the complexity of its themes. For the most part, the camera remains static (I counted only four moving shots: half of them represent the protagonist’s point-of-view as she gazes out the window of a vehicle, and the other half… well, I don’t want to spoil anything), either trapping our characters in tight, claustrophobic closeups that push them into the lower corners of the frame, or losing them in vast, sprawling compositions in which they’re absolutely dwarfed by their surroundings. The implication is clear: these women feel confined and smothered by their respective social roles.

The sound design is equally exquisite. Once again evoking Akerman, much of the conflict occurs in the ellipses, and director Pawel Pawlikowski fills the tense, uncomfortable gaps in the dialogue with the clink of cutlery, the echoes of footfalls in an empty stairwell, and the splash of alcohol in a glass bottle.

I’m obviously a great fan of big, explosive blockbusters, but there’s always something refreshing about a filmmaker that understands the emotional power of subtler cinematic techniques. Akerman, Yasujiro Ozu, and Robert Bresson saw the value in occasionally stepping back and allowing the story to tell itself, trusting the viewer to make do without exaggerated performances or a swelling orchestral score—and so does Pawlikowski.

[Originally written April 27, 2018.]

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