The Exquisite Balance of Action and Repose in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida

TIFF 2014: Ida’s black and white imagery and heavy use of static shots might seem a little one-dimensional, but its simplicity is part of its charm. Here is cinematography at its best, surprising and delighting us and, above all, telling a story.

Ida tells a deceptively simple tale with the help of some powerful black and white imagery. The initial impression is unprepossessing but this is a film that gradually draws you into its own surprising depths. Its visual aesthetic, understated dramatic tensions, and subtle emotional register add up to a minor masterpiece.

On one level Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida is about a crisis of faith: how to maintain one’s beliefs and values in the face of so much that calls them into question. On another it poses a still more universal question about how to live in – or outside – the world – and the difficult choices entailed. One of the film’s strengths lies in the way its simple narrative contrives to carry some impressively heavy philosophical baggage.

The main protagonist, Anna, orphaned during the Second World War and left to the care of a convent, is pressured to make a connection with her last surviving relative before she takes her vows. The encounter with her aunt prompts a journey to uncover the secrets of their family’s past. What they find out along the way poses some serious challenges for aunt and niece alike.

I will not pick apart all the mechanisms that lend dramatic power to this film and thus deploy an unconscionable array of plot-spoilers. I will rather content myself with the observation that Ida is rarely predictable and then try to identify some of the reasons behind its power to engage and surprise. I believe this has a lot to do with the cinematography and some masterful visual storytelling.

The resort to black and white can be a problem, of course. It invokes a kind of trope of intellectualism or non-conformism, the ghost of new wave. Such concerns lay behind one of the famous stipulations of the Dogma 95 movement, of course, to film exclusively in colour. For all that, there is a Spartan beauty to the black and white imagery here. It leans heavily on the fixed shot, sometimes to the point of seeming overly static, but thanks to a kind of symphony of control and development its heavy use rarely saps the dynamism of the action. This plays out through our shifting tableau of images in a way which commands attention, and diverts and directs us through our narrative journey.

The cinematographer has taken great care over his compositions and dared to break conventions in the interests of adding flavour or intensity to what he depicts. Closer examination of this imagery and what makes it work will illustrate why movies are only effective in so far as they create a synergy of powerful elements. Great cinematic narrative generally demands, among other things, great acting. We can observe the unusual visual ploys that give emphasis and accent to the story but they would be nothing more than empty gestures without the human raw material provided by some phenomenal actors.

One such ploy is the repeated use of faces which are only partially in frame. Moments of sadness and satisfaction alike are captured with a kind of focus that is somehow made more intense by its partial depiction. This reflects the time-honoured principle in visual art of the implied line, which stimulates an active visualisation on the part of the viewer, taking her beyond mere passive reception of given material. The principle is far from unknown to cinema either. Some of the most powerful cinematic moments have happened off screen.

Michael Haneke’s is one of the greatest exponents of the cinematic ‘implied line.’ Consider how in Benny’s Video, for example, we overhear the murder being committed as the murderer’s camera, now momentarily abandoned, directs its gaze elsewhere with a kind of mocking discretion. The horror of the crime is only accentuated by its partial depiction. We become complicit in what we are forced to imagine, ourselves more intimately soiled by the action that revolts us.

We are used to fine pictorial compositions in our movies, as cinematographers resort to tried-and-tested principles of design to please their audiences. If you don’t believe me, just pick a film and try counting the incidences of important objects or figures appearing in the mathematically proportioned golden section of your screen. Less common are films that play with those aesthetics and conventions in a way that lends power to their visual storytelling. The repeated partially rendered subject is one example. Another is the use of compositions not to please but to destabilise our point of view and unsettle our experience in a way that allows us better to identify with the action and players.

In one scene, Anna is billeted at the local church in a cramped little room, not much more than a corridor, as her quest to discover precisely what happened to her parents continues. Once the priest has left her alone there, we see her face in the bottom left hand corner of the screen – and looking out of the shot – for a few moments. This is the antithesis of ‘good’ composition but what is the effect? We share her restless discomfort, her sense of being out of place. This is visual storytelling at its best.

Paradoxically, some of the most striking moments in the film are only made possible because the shifting kaleidoscope of fixed shots has created a quiet, almost soothing rhythm. For this is only the blank slate for the appearance of some kind of disruptive element. Unexpected developments are thus woven into the fabric of the film in a way that somehow never fails to surprise and delight us. So one moment we observe two women sitting quietly beside a reopened grave; the next we realise with a start that one of them is holding a skull in her hand.  The rhythms of revelation and dismay are exquisitely orchestrated. The sight of the skull is only the prelude to the reluctant exhumer’s confession that is as casual as it is unexpected, as we look down upon him at the bottom of the grave, revisiting and wallowing in the scene of his crime.

All in all, Ida is a master-class in filmmaking and, not coincidentally, an affecting and thought-provoking experience. It might be criticised for being overly one-dimensional: for eschewing colour and leaning so heavily on the fixed shot. Its rather simple and singularly sustained vision is also part of its charm, however. There is much more to be said about a plot rich in irony and light on cliché, and, at a more micro-level, the ingenious construction of some of its most striking scenes. But let’s discuss all that when you’ve seen the movie yourself.

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