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20 June 2022

Umbrella Entertainment comes of age with IDA (review)

Umbrella Entertainment (Australia) Region ALL Blu-ray

A novice nun discovers dark secrets in her past in the sublime IDA, on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

Having grown up an orphan in a Polish convent, eighteen year old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking the veil when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) reveals the existence of her one remaining relative Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza, ALL ABOUT MY PARENTS) who refused to take custody of her as a child in spite of many attempts by the convent at communication.  Anna is reluctant to see her, but the Mother Superior insist that it is only proper to do so.  Anna travels to Warsaw but her aunt, a judge and former communist prosecutor, seems scornful of her vocation, revealing to Anna's surprise that they are Jewish and that her parents were murdered by the "Good Christians" who sheltered them during the German occupation.  They part ways, but Wanda has a change of heart when Anna reveals her plans to visit her parents' graves, explaining to the younger girl that there are no graves but she has a plan to find them.  

Wanda and Anna travel to the village in which Wanda grew up to find the family farm now occupied by Feliks Skiba (Adam Szyszkowski, AFTERIMAGE) whose father Wanda believes murdered her sister and brother-in-law.  When Skiba refuses to acknowledge the truth of any of her allegations or her threats, Wanda and Anna go in search of his dying father Szymon (Jerzy Trela, THREE COLORS: WHITE).  Along the way, Wanda encourages Anna to engage in some worldly pleasures with hitchhiking musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik, MAGNESIUM) because "Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours."  Underlying Wanda's bitterness towards faith and party, however, is a deep pain in which Anna can only share once they uncover the truth of their shared past.

An international artistic success and an acknowledged influence on Paul Schrader's acclaiemed FIRST REFORMED – the filmic apotheosis of his "man in a room" narratives and his heretofore academic treatise on transcendental film style – IDA is at once episodically-plotted and precisely-constructed, favoring a monochrome, stripped-down photographic style that is organic to the story, setting, and characters rather than an affectation.  While not the feature debut of documentarian Russia- and British-based Polish ex-pat Pawel Pawlikowski (THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH), IDA is his first narrative feature made in Poland, a homeland from which he was estranged.  Seeming at first to riff on the premise of Luis Bunuel's VIRIDIANA in which a novice visits her libertine uncle who means to corrupt her, IDA captures a sense of sixties Poland with which film buffs may be familiar from the Polish New Wave along with the social and racial undercurrents less than twenty years after the war.  

The contrast between the studied performance of veteran actress Kulesza and inexperienced Trzebuchowska – upon whose passive expressions the viewer is encouraged to read emotional and psychological complexities – is an effective mix that so overshadows the supporting performances of seasoned actors who come across as naturalistic non-actors (if Szyszkowski's grace moment seems futile it is only because his character is not owed the sympathy or compassion of his audience within the film).  If the ending has a rather cynical bent, with both main characters retreating in different ways from life as it has been altered for them – Anna seemingly choosing to serve her adopted faith at a remove from the "Good Christians" she has met – then one may conjecture that IDA is not a film about faith but about identity and how two women deal with major blows to their senses of self.  

Pawlikowski keeps his camera static, framing early scenes of Anna at the convent with actors low in the frame, as if to suggest not so much their subjugation to higher powers as being unobservant of their cloistered environment while scenes of Anna wandering the city and interacting with unfamiliar people often put her in the center of the frame.  The camera only moves in the final shot, a handheld take leading Anna towards her presumed destiny.  There is no score, only source music including Coltrane jazz and Polish tunes of the era, with a classical piece seeming to be the only non-diegetic music as it may or may not be emanating from a car radio but expertly underlines the emotions of the character.  In spite of her affecting performance, Trzebuchowska has chosen to step behind the camera as an assistant director while Kulesza and Szyszkowski would both appear in Pawlikowski's subsequent film COLD WAR.

Shot on the Arri Alexa Plus in the antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio – another choice Schrader adopted for FIRST REFORMED – with Zeiss Ultra Prime Lenses, and projected both digitally and scanned to 35mm film, IDA's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen image is tack sharp with rich blacks, a multitude of grays, and stable whites (some smoke-diffused).  Textures and fine detail are tactile from the contrasts of rural and urban decay to the contrasting fibrous and silky clothing that make characters either blend in or stand out from their environments.  

The Polish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sports rather sedate sound design, being predominately front-oriented with some subtle rear channel atmosphere, but music and a few directional effects do demonstrate a sense of depth.  Optional English subtitles are provided and free of errors.

Extras-wise, Umbrella is pretty much a region free alternative to the Region A-locked American edition from Music Box Films, so stateside viewers may just want to go for what is cheaper (English-speaking Region B-locked viewers may favor the Umbrella edition since Artificial Eye's Region B British Blu-ray has no extras apart from the film's trailer). In the London Q&A with director Pawel Pawlikowski (21:18), the director mentions wanting to make a film in Poland, and how the Poland he wanted to capture was that of his memories (admitting that he has no handle on modern Poland), and that the character of Wanda was inspired by the Polish ex-pat wife of an Oxford instructor who he saw as warm and caring but who he later learned was deported to Poland for crimes against humanity.  He reveals that the shoot was rather chaotic in spite of how it looks, and that the cinematographer fell ill, requiring him to use the operator who made his DP debut on the film.

"On the Set of Ida" featurette (11:26) and the interview with the director (6:51) are extracts from a Polish culture program in which he rehashes some material but also reveals that the script had been making the rounds for a few years and won awards, but that the finished film actually diverts greatly from the source as he made a lot of discoveries during casting, location scouting, and shooting that reshaped the film.  The disc also includes a theatrical trailer (1:50). 

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