The recipient of this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is a beautiful, pensive work, both in storytelling and aesthetic. Black & white, shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, Ida (2014) is striking, if austere, in its blocking, creating compositions that are odd and intentionally askew. This technique feeds a sensation of visual discomfort that, as the film progresses, folds in with our growing anxiety of the story's unravelling.
The basic, two dimensional question of the film boils down to "will she or won't she?" as Ida, a young nun in the 1960s, is sent to see Wanda, her aunt and only living relative, before taking her final vows. The visit reveals a slew of dark family secrets. She is a Jew, and her parents are dead, Wanda believes under suspicious circumstances. The two take a road trip to the city where Ida's parents were last known to be alive during the war, hidden in the woods by a Polish family who now owns the parents' farm, and is uncooperative when the women start poking and prodding. What really happened? Did the Nazis kill them or is the truth much more sinister? (It is.)
One may think this a by-the-numbers "coming of age" scenario, where the youth in question will have a go at all temptations life has to offer and renounce sisterhood in favor of love. You're in for another surprise. Early in the film, Wanda laments Ida's sheltered existence, suggesting she should try and live a little before returning to the convent, "Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?" In reality, life's trials and tribulations that Ida is yet unaccustomed to serve only as a backdrop for the bigger picture: her transformation into a silent witness to history's horrors. For Ida, the road trip is a journey into a violent past. The present, or rather Wanda's present that she also becomes witness to, and one that mimics the state of affairs on the national scale, holds even more tragedy.
While the film has garnered plenty of praise, it has fueled controversy and unease from some audiences in how it presents the Christian/Jewish relationship, suggesting Poland's shared responsibility and compliance in the Holocaust. No one likes to look too deeply into the less than shining pages of their national history. Not every Pole had the beliefs, spirit, courage, and means of Oskar Schindler, and the film's acknowledgement of that fact, although unpleasant, is not unjust.