Ida, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski, wr. Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski, st. Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Quietly making its way onto all and sundry's Best Films of 2014 list, Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida awes with a minimalist beauty thanks to a balletic interplay between director, with his startling eye for composition, and his muse Agata Trzebuchowska as the titular Ida, near mute, but exceptionally, infinitely watchable. In 1960s Poland, before committing herself to a life of servitude before God, young nun-to-be is advised by her prioress to go and visit Wanda Gruz (Kulesza), Anna's aunt and last remaining next of kin. Cruz is a high court judge, but out of chambers indulges with wild abandon in men and liquor. Indifferently she informs Anna of her real name - Ida Lebenstein - and of her Jewish ancestry, whose parents were murdered during World War II. As in most road movies, this mismatched pair soon form an alliance of sorts and begin the investigative process of uncovering their bleak shared family history.
Shot with painterly delicacy in 4:3 ratio and in immaculately balanced black and white by cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, nearly every shot of Ida is a thing of immense wonderment. Context being as it is the root of all Dramatic argument and conflict, Pawlikowski repeatedly shoots his actors towards the edges of his lens, italicising the deeply troubled nature of his characters, dwarfed by the formidable immensity of their surroundings. For a film whose weight hinges so emphatically on the authenticity of the history in which it's based, we are never allowed to forget where and when we are. But there is a secondary story here too, intertwined with the procedural element of Ida and Wanda's explorations. For every mile the pair cross in Wanda's beat-up old motor car, so Ida too crosses in her own coming of age. When Wanda asks Ida if she ever has sinful thoughts, carnal thoughts, and Ida replies with a smile yes to the former and no to the latter, Wanda tells her it's a shame. "You should try. Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are those vows of yours?"
The relationship between these two is intriguingly layered and ever-shifting. Wanda's interest in Ida oscillates between fond emotional investment and cold indifference (we learn that she could have come for the child Ida at the convent, but didn't), and Pawlikowski and Trzebuchowska keep us guessing as to where Ida's true sensibilities lie. Despite being an overtly meticulously orchestrated film, Ida never feels contrived or overwrought, and a subtly anempathic beatnik-jazz score courtesy of Ogrodnik's sax-player the pair pick up en route, with its shifting, shuffling patterns, provides the film with a cultural melodic fingerprint with which to centre the action, especially in lieu of much dialogue at all. Ida is a film that brims with a kind of haunting, near-supernatural tension and grace, utterly compelling, yet defying of true categorisation. It may very well be one of the best films this year, but I'd go one further and suggest it's the most essential.