What are you thinking about?” novitiate nun Anna is asked toward the end of “Ida.”
“I’m not thinking,” she replies.
As far as the viewer is concerned, her mind may very well be empty; such is the dearth of interior life she’s given in the film’s 80 minutes. Asked to do little more than gaze wide-eyed at the world around her, Agata Trzebuchowska’s character is a blank slate for most of the film. Only in the final scenes does she transform into something more than a passive observer.
But by then, it’s too little too late.
The film begins with Anna set to take her vows of sisterhood. Before she can do that, she must visit Wanda, her aunt and only living relative. Together, the two set out to find the bodies of Anna’s parents.
What begins as an art-house variation on the odd-couple road-trip film takes a series of messy turns as Anna and Wanda rustle up the ghosts of their pasts. For Anna, a series of discoveries injects a healthy dose of doubt into her plans, while Wanda reckons with demons reawakened by a journey into her family’s history.
All that creates fertile ground for a tale of intensive self-reflection that director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski (he shares a writing credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz) delays far too long. His heart clearly lies with the film’s aesthetics, which, admittedly, are beautiful.
When composing his shots, Pawlikowski has the eye of a painter, constantly moving his characters, and the viewer’s eyes, around the edges of the frame. He’s a top-notch visual stylist who understands the virtues of letting scenes breathe with patient long takes and distant framings that lend the film a quiet, observational grace. A minimalist soundtrack (courtesy of sound editor Michael Dela) re-inforces the meditative qualities of “Ida,” rarely offering more than one or two sounds at any given time.
But cinema is (for most of us) a narrative medium. We want stories, not visual art exhibits, with characters who think and feel and, in turn, make us think and feel. And it’s in that department that the flaws of “Ida” are most glaring.
While Trzebuchowska is hamstrung by a woefully underwritten character, Agata Kulesza wrings every ounce of life from Wanda, giving a delightfully nuanced performance that made her more deserving as the film’s lead. At times tender, snide, lustful, earnest, insecure and brash, Kulesza contains multitudes expressed with remarkable restraint. She acts with the corners of her eyes, allowing years of carefully hidden regret to just barely reach the surface.
If only she had a script that matched her efforts, “Ida” could be something to behold. Instead, it’s a film with meat and bones sorely lacking in heart.