Exodus: Gods And Kings (2014) is the most technically cohesive movie of the year. Ida is the most beautiful. Shot by two directors of photography, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, its black and white imagery is so sharp and absolutely lovely that from the very first shot, which evokes the stark emptiness of Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), I sat inspired. How generous the Polish landscape is that it allows cameras to photograph it so intimately. This is a movie, I think, that would work based solely on what the camera captures. I might even go so far as to say actors are not required, but then I’d be branded a moron.
Ida’s story is told by actors playing characters, yes, but it is also told, maybe even to a more dramatic degree, by Zal and Lenczewski. They frame their characters in angles and heights last seen in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), and even then Hooper’s film was not as beautiful. Their cinematography has transcended skill and become a vessel for storytelling.
Consider the framing of Ida, the lonely heroine played by Agata Trzebuchowska, and her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). They are often positioned in the bottom third of the frame, occasionally off to the left or right so that the negative space surrounding them looks like a blank canvas. I have a theory that I think is not far off from the truth: Ida and Wanda embark on a journey of self-discovery, confrontation and penance. It is a morally and emotionally heavy journey. Zal and Lenczewski frame them in the bottom third because they carry the weight of their worlds on their shoulders. There is an insightful shot of Ida standing alone in the corridor of a hotel. The camera looks up at her from the floor below, through a spiral staircase and it seems as though the entire ceiling is about to come crashing down on her. Later, when Wanda questions a dying old man about the fate of Ida’s parents, the framing is so askew that the whole bottom half of Wanda’s face is cut off. Her world gets heavier. Had the interrogation gone on any longer Wanda might have disappeared entirely.
Zal and Lenczewski are so good that they also tease us with certain shots. Consider the scene in which Ida sits next to Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), the hitchhiking saxophonist, and has an awkward conversation about her quest. They sit in front of a latticed partition, down in the bottom third again. The shot is head-on and in perfect symmetry (scrutinise the edges of the frame; you’ll arrive at perfect symmetry) and yet Ida and Lis sit slightly to the left. This is not an oversight; it is deliberate, cheeky, frustrating. Why do it?
Ida is an orphan at a Polish convent, some time in the 1960s. She’s about to take her vows of chastity and poverty in a couple of weeks, which usually signifies the end of a personal life. She is told by Mother Superior to visit her aunt, Wanda, before the vow-taking. Wanda’s her only living relative, a waning judge who drowns her woes in alcohol and believes in promiscuity as a form of self-liberation.
Rather dispassionately, Wanda informs Ida that she’s Jewish, and that her family disappeared during World War II, presumed dead. Off on this quest they go, tracking down leads, interrogating suspects, meeting handsome, available, virile men along the way. This is where Lis comes in. He’s a pretty good saxophonist, but a romancer and lover he is not. I suppose it’s not easy to be, considering his target is a convent girl whose ideal man probably takes the shape of a priest.
Trzebuchowska is a wonder as Ida. Pixie-faced, but stern, assured, confident in her faith. She regards her aunt’s sinful ways with a quiet disdain, but never condescends. She never preaches. Unlike her Superiors who look about ready to reveal their fangs, Ida is irrevocably human, endearingly so. She is also very pretty; Wanda laments towards the end that Ida’s got beautiful red hair that she tucks away under her veil. Sometimes we see it, and it is indeed beautiful. We can almost see the red through the black and white photography.
So Ida works superbly both as a touching drama as well as a document of high art. The plot about Ida searching for her parents is poignant, yes, especially when taking her religious deadline into account, but I felt a greater love for her relationship with Wanda, which is simultaneously sad and uplifting. Their departure towards the end feels much like the ending of an era. But they needn’t worry — as long as they remain adorned by the immaculate touch of Zal and Lenczewski, they will live on in majesty for all eternity.
Best Moment | The last shot. It sums up everything Ida was, is, and will be. Her journey is only beginning.
Worst Moment | Nope.