Ida: A Polish portrait

By Peter Calder

A black-and-white film about a young Polish nun is one of this year's most arresting arthouse releases, writes Peter Calder. He spoke to its writer-director.

Actress Agata Trebuchowska as Ida
Actress Agata Trebuchowska as Ida

When Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski accepted the best-picture prize at last year's London Film Festival, he joked that he had thought making a black and white movie about a novice nun in Poland in 1961 would be a bad career move, "but that doesn't seem to be the case".

Ida will never set any multiplex box office alight, but for cinephiles and foreign-film fans it's an arresting and deeply satisfying piece of work, a small masterpiece of art cinema that draws the viewer in and holds on tight.

The title character, who has been raised an orphan in a convent, is about to take the veil when she is instructed by the Mother Superior to first visit her only known relative. The odd road trip that ensues is an achingly specific take on a familiar story of post-war Europe.

Pawlikowski, who has made all his films in the UK, impressed with the teenage love story My Summer of Love in 2004 (Emily Blunt's breakthrough role). He says Ida was a return to familiar ground, stylistic and geographical.

Why did you want to go back to Poland?

I tend to make films about where I am in life. I'm in my 50s now and perhaps more reflective, and I wanted to get back to where I come from. I was born in 1957 and grew up in the 60s so I remember that time the the vividness of childhood perception.

But also it's the world of the generation of my parents who fought in the war, who fought Stalinism, and in the early 60s were this messed up generation who wanted to live. I find that generation really interesting. It was the most alive time in culture. For the young, when Stalinist censorship was weakening there was a freedom that people grabbed with both hands. There was an explosion of music and theatre and writing.

The style of the film takes us back, too, to the cinema of the time. The aspect ratio [the shape of the onscreen image] is 4:3 and it's in black and white.

It's more the spirit of the time than the cinema of the time, I think. It's how I remember that time, or maybe how I fantasised it. Certainly 4:3 was the accepted norm then. But the very radical thing is that the camera isn't moving.

I agree that is the radical thing. There's a stillness in the compositions. You make the single shot and have the action unfold in the static frame.

From the very beginning, I suppose, I wanted it to be as much a meditation as a story. I wanted to lift it to a slightly more timeless thing, because I am not illustrating history or explaining anything. I want people to enter that space, to be able to imagine. The black and white also allows me to make something that is somehow out of time, rather than looking like some middlebrow melodrama with Oscar ambitions.

The framing is interesting too. The figures are often at the bottom of the frame, marooned under a huge oppressive sky that makes them insignificant.

Yeah, maybe they are dwarfed by it or maybe there's space for something. It was partly a consequence of the 4:3 and realising that I have got no way of showing landscape, so I asked the cameraman to tilt up and see what happens. It gave a kind of vertical dimension.

The critics read all sorts of things into it which are all fine: the emptiness of the sky, the presence of God - somebody mentioned that it's the space where six million Jews disappeared. I am glad that it evokes, as a poem can, all sorts of interpretations. A poem is very precise, but oblique and opaque enough to create something in the viewer's head. So the viewer makes the film with me. I like it when that happens in films. I don't like being told when to emote and having ideas explained to me. I like films that know exactly where they are going but they are not doing it in a rhetorical, cheesy way.

Agata Trebuchowska, whom you cast in the main role, is not an actress and was not much interested in doing the role. What moved you to cast her?

I looked among professional actresses, but I couldn't find anyone who would make this character believable. We saw her in a cafe reading a book. The fact that she didn't want to act made it more exciting because she is playing somebody who doesn't want to act, to perform, who has not been exposed to such a life. Her face doesn't try to seduce. Agata takes in things very deeply and doesn't talk before she has thought and that made her perfect.

Who: Pawel Pawlikowski
What: Ida
When: In cinemas from Thursday

- TimeOut

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