Some movies have no secrets to keep and are eager to tell you so, very loudly. Especially when summer is near, they come trooping into theaters with sequel numbers trailing their titles, your guarantee of seeing something that will play like an extended cut of its own trailer.
Better films, of course, prefer to hold something in reserve, and may sometimes even seem reluctant to let their secrets go. That’s the case with Jonathan Glazer’s remarkable Under the Skin, which makes you wait in suspense to seize any scrap of information that might explain the strange comings and goings. More than that, though, you ache for the emotions to stop tantalizing you and slip into your grasp.
And then, every once in a while, you come across a film like Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida that never gives up its secrets at all. People reveal their pasts; evidence emerges of terrible crimes; and yet the movie seems to stand quietly apart from its own events, never allowing you to see fully into the characters or to know for certain what meanings their lives might hold for you.
You have to work a little even to figure out the period in Ida. You know at once that the movie is set in an era appropriate to an old-fashioned, squarish screen format and black-and-white cinematography (or almost black-and-white, I should say, given the ghosts of color that infrequently seep in). From some remarks that are dropped in a brief courtroom scene, you can confirm that the film’s Poland is still communist; and from the tailored cut of people’s clothing and the humpbacked contours of their cars, you can estimate when the story takes place within a range of fifteen or twenty years. (Styles weren’t exactly churning in Poland between Ashes and Diamonds and Camera Buff.) But it’s only when you learn that the title character was born during World War II and you surmise that she would now be 18—the right age for this convent-raised novice to take her vows as a nun—that you can at last narrow the date to around 1962.
But by saying all this, I’ve already violated the mood of undecidability that’s so important to Pawlikowski. Contrary to what I’ve just said, there really is no title character in Ida—or rather, she does exist, but she goes by the name of Anna.
Cat-faced and cleft-chinned, with dark eyes that seem a little wider because of the lowering of the novice’s headcloth across her forehead, Anna first appears in close-up on a screen that’s depthless and almost black, her smooth skin glowing within one of the shafts of almost palpable white light that characterize the film—a Carl Dreyer spiritual light, you might say. She’s isolated within the shot, except for the figure she’s studying with rapt attention: a statue of Jesus. Over the next minutes, as a clipped succession of static views presents life in the convent, you come to understand that Anna is both alone and not alone, joined to a community but attached only to God. Pawlikowski makes every material fact of her life feel emphatically present—in the refectory, for instance, where the scraping of spoons against bowls becomes an all-encompassing clatter—and yet lets a sense of absence hover everywhere. Throughout the film, he composes images that are dominated by the empty air occupying a gray-walled room, or an immensity of winter clouds looming above a landscape. Meanwhile, he pushes his people to the margins: relegating them to a narrow band that stretches across the bottom of the frame, perhaps, or a thin strip of land in front of a low horizon.