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Some movies are better seen with other people so you can start processing them together as soon as the movie’s over. You can clarify plot points, point out discrepancies, and relive the best (or worst) moments. Most of the movies I see fall into this category. Then there are movies that are better experienced alone. Last year’s extraordinary film Ida (2013) fell into that category for me. Not that I needed to grapple with it; the story is simple and easy to follow. But I did need to sit with it afterward, and I’d encourage anyone else seeing it for the first time to do the same.
Ida tells the story of a young woman about to take her vows as a nun. She meets her long-lost aunt for the first time and discovers that she’s Jewish and that her parents were killed in the Holocaust. Her name isn’t even her name; she’s gone by Anna her whole life, but her real name is Ida. She and her aunt, Wanda, travel together to find out how Ida’s parents died and where they’re buried. Along the way they clash over their extremely different lifestyles, but the trauma of revisiting the past also forms a bond between them.
Ida might sound like a movie you’ve seen before, but this is something new. This is a film whose journey is about getting to know your protagonist and discovering her particular way of doing life. Movies often start with a character “type” that we’re already familiar with, so the filmmakers can rely on us as the audience to fill in the blanks—and we usually fill them in with ourselves. Ida resists that kind of easy self-identification, even though the film is full of blank spaces we could project ourselves into. Ida herself starts the movie as a blank slate; in her her novitiate’s garb and head covering she blends in with the other novice nuns. All we have to latch onto is her face, which is both serene and gloriously intense. The black and white photography makes her dark eyes look nearly black. Her face is unreadable but inviting.
Shooting the film in black and white, director Pawel Pawlikowski gives it a timeless quality. The storyline brushes up against several familiar plot devices—the murder mystery, the coming-of-age story, the romance, the family drama—without giving itself over to any one of them. Which makes sense, as Ida’s world is not one of easy answers or neatly resolved endings. Putting a tidy bow on a story like this would trivialize Ida’s and Wanda’s experiences, not to mention those of their deceased family members; instead the story is driven by the force of Ida’s intensely believable personality.
I will probably be the only person to compare these two movies, but I had a similar reaction to Ida in Ida as I did to Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler. Both films give us protagonists who fascinated me and in whom I believed so completely that I couldn’t wait to see what they would do next. Ida’s circumstances are very different from Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Nightcrawler, and she’s far more sympathetic. But both characters start out as enigmas, and you get to spend the movie unraveling them. Creating a character like that, who is both mysterious and enjoyable, is the sort of achievement that makes me excited about going to the movies.
The part of the film I keep coming back to is the final act, in which Ida essentially tries on her aunt’s life, possibly as a way to honor her memory. The last shot of the film tells us in no uncertain terms what Ida decides to do now that she’s experienced everything in life her aunt wanted for her. At first I read this final shot as being preachy, and that bothered me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the only possible ending that made sense in the context of Ida’s character. That’s the sort of film this is: the kind you think about for a long time afterward. Don’t be daunted by this; it’s very inviting and accessible, the subject matter and subtitles notwithstanding. But don’t expect any easy answers. Ida respects its heroine and its audience too much for that.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.