“Ida” – Less Is More

May 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw the movie “Ida” last night.  It’s a beautiful film.  Ken Turan in the LA Times is right.
a film of exceptional artistry whose emotions are as potent and persuasive as its images are indelibly beautiful.
More than that, as I left the theater, I realized how busy, frenetic even, most movies are.  “Most movies” means American movies. “Ida” conveys those potent emotions without any of the gimmicks found in other films.

Poland, 1962.  An 18-year old girl, an orphan, has been raised in an abbey and is now a novitiate about to take her vows. The mother superior tells her to first visit her aunt, her only living relative.  The aunt tells her that her parents were Jews. They were at first sheltered by a Christian family but then killed.  The two women set off in the aunt’s car to find out what happened – where are the parents buried, where did they live, who killed them.

So it’s a road movie. You can imagine how this might play out in a Hollywood film. The bonding of aunt and niece, the reclaiming of the family’s home and property (but only after much conflict, argument, and cleverly planned tactics by this undaunted duo), the girl finally embracing her true Jewish identity and deciding to leave the abbey and rejoin the real world . . . and that handsome musician, let’s not forget him.

Not in “Ida.”  The movie is striking for what it doesn’t have – all those things we so take for granted in films that we don’t notice them until they are absent..

Color.  “Ida” is shot in black-and-white and in the more squarish 4:3 aspect ratio (that’s 1.4 : 1; most films today are 1.8 or 2.4 : 1). The characters are at the bottom of the screen, with all that space at the top. Each shot looks like it might be a photograph in a museum. 

Cutting: Those shots are held longer. The average shot in an American film these days is a couple of seconds. In “Ida,” the camera stays fixed longer, the characters move through the frame. 

Talk: No lengthy discussions or arguments to make the characters’ motives and emotions unmistakable. A transcript of the film would run to only a few pages. Ida herself is especially laconic. And yet we know.

Music: Most films add music to tell you the mood of a scene.  In “Ida,” you hear music only when the characters hear it – the aunt’s Mozart records, the dyed-blonde singer doing cheesy Euro rock -n-roll in a club (the quartet behind her stays after hours and plays Coltrane tunes*).

Action:  Mostly walking and smoking. These are the actions which, in addition to the sparse dialogue, give us a sense of the characters. Even the sex in the sex scene is elided. 

Happy or Uplifting Ending: In American road and buddy films, even when the heroes die – think of the freeze frame endings of “Butch Cassidy” or “Thelma and Louise” – there’s a sense of triumph.  The ending of “Ida” is not ambiguous, as it might have been. But it’s not what audiences steeped in American films would want or expect. (Spoiler etiquette prevents me from giving details.)

Here’s the trailer.  To get a more accurate feel of the film, first mute the sound, then hit the pause button frequently and just look at the composition of the shot.

* One of those Coltrane tunes, “Equinox,” wasn’t released until 1964. The movie is set in 1962, but who’s counting?

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