“What sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?"
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish film has been piling up a lot of awards around the world and is one of the front runners at the Oscars for best foreign picture. It is a very short film that has transcended its historical significance in Poland and somehow captivated audiences throughout the world. It could be in large part thanks to the gorgeous black and white cinematography (which has also received a nod from the Academy) with equal aspects ratio. A lot of thought and detail was put into each frame of the picture. Another reason why it has been acclaimed by so many people in different parts of the world might be because of Agata Trzebuchowska’s outstanding performance as Ida and how well her character teams up with Agata Kulesza’s Wanda. Wanda plays Ida’s aunt who is her only living relative. Ida was raised in a convent as an orphan and before taking her vows, Mother Superior asks her to visit her aunt. This encounter is the central theme of the film because on one hand you have the innocence and naivety of Ida and on the other the liberal and stern Wanda who enjoys drinking and having one night stands with men she meets at bars. They take a journey together to try to find out where Ida’s parents were buried after being killed during the Second World War and discover some surprises along the way. This theme has been approached in the past many times before where you get two apparently opposite characters coming together to discover new things about themselves, so I don’t think this is the reason why it has received so much attention. The main reason why this has captivated audiences is the underlying theme of the film and how subtly Pawlikowski delivers the message. It is a film about the search for identity, a universal theme we can all relate to. Ida is just now realizing things about her past while she tries to discover who she really is. She has spent all her life in a convent without any knowledge of the outside world or who her parents were. This search of self discovery is what audiences around the world can relate to.
I was surprised that Agata Trzebuchowska had no prior experience as an actor before this film because she gives an incredibly convincing performance as Ida. With each new revelation and discovery of things of her past the protagonist gives a subtle and mannered reaction. She is a spiritual woman and takes everything in a calm and inner manner, but somehow her facial expressions convey a lot of meaning to the viewer. Agata Kulesza on the other hand is a stern woman who played a key role during the early years of Poland after the war. She tries to find refuge in alcohol and classical music because she has obviously gone through a lot. She doesn’t understand how Ida could be so spiritual and encourages her to experience the world in order to discover who she is. Both actresses have great chemistry together despite the very short running time of the film. Pawlikowski isn’t interested in us getting to learn a lot more about the characters, but rather going through the search for their identity with them. The film is cold and distant, and the snow falling in the background is a constant reminder of that. It is one of the reasons why perhaps I wasn’t engaged with the film as much as I would’ve liked to even though it says a lot more through visuals than it does with words.