The concept of silence encompasses more than the absence of sound. Silence informs containing emotion. It reveals and represses our darkest secrets. Capturing the nuances of film remains a difficult task to accomplish. Through music, dialogue, and cinematography, director Pawel Pawlikowski achieves these nuances in his film Ida.
Set in 1960s Poland, the film follows an orphan (Agata Trzebuchowska) on the eve of taking her vows to become a nun. On advice from her Mother Superior, she visits her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a once famous prosecutor for the communist regime. The two women embark on a trip across Poland to locate the graves of Ida’s parents, killed for being Jews in WWII. Pawlikowski offers audiences an intimate view of individual suffering and the tragic choices shaping our reality.
Pawlikowski establishes silence in the first minutes of the film. Audiences witness Ida’s routine of work, prayer, and nourishment without dialogue. Any communication is done through the solitude shared by those at the convent. The sprawling landscape echoes with the natural sounds of crunching footsteps in the snow, water poured over open bodies, and spoons clanking on porcelain soup bowls. Punctuated verbal silence allows audiences into Ida’s world, demanding the same level of contemplation and reflection as those living in the convent. Despite this inclusion, there remains a sense of guardedness. Absence of expositional dialogue offers no insight into Ida’s thoughts, creating a tension that is unrelenting throughout the film. Even when discovering the past of Wanda and her parents, Ida remains stoic and pensive. Her silence heightens the mystery surrounding her character and makes her more enticing to follow as a protagonist. Ida’s particular brand of silence separates her from the rest of the characters. While silence proved corrosive for Aunt Wanda, silence strengthens Ida in a way that increases her control over her destiny than audiences fully realize. Commanding her silence reinforces the limited intimacy formed between the audience and Ida. We may want to direct Ida on her path in a way that comforts us, but ultimately it is her decision how she reacts to these discoveries.
Pawlikowski’s choice to set the film in black and white permeates the silence. Coloring in the film serves two key functions: one, it creates timelessness. The communist presence and references of the Holocaust provide historical context, but an exact date for the film remains unknown. Timelessness connects audiences to the film not through the understanding of the details of this history—which some audiences might not know—but through the emotions expressed such as fear, anger, and regret. Two, the coloring isolates the characters from each other. The whiteness of Ida’s gown contrasts with Wanda’s dark fur coat, as well as the black uniforms of the Party. On the historical side, the contrast symbolizes the tension between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party in Poland. The theme never assumes the foreground of the plot, but its influence (though a little early for the time period of the film) pervades through the film, culminating with a shot of Ida clearly separated from a troop of top Party members. Metaphorically, the color contrast further isolates the characters by trapping them in their assigned roles. As Wanda tells Ida, “I’m the slut and you’re the saint.” One of the tragedies of this film comes from the notion that we cannot escape the paths our choices created.
Discussion of this film would not be complete without looking at cinematography. A variety of shots, ranging from long and sprawling to tight and claustrophobic, manifest the pain of the characters. The gorgeous camerawork accentuates the omnipresent silence, even in moments of dialogue. An example of Pawlikowksi’s talent comes with the shot of Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), the farmer owning Ida’s parent’s land, crouched in a hole. The shot from above encloses Feliks, becoming the physical manifestation of his memories. Lack of direct engagement with the audience places the burden of the past on Feliks’ shoulders alone. We spend a few moments sharing in his silent space, but we do not have access to his silence. Like so many in this film, Feliks denies himself the closure needed to move on from his past experience. Seen as an antagonist of the film, Feliks is humanized in that moment, demonstrating the complexity of the supposedly simple truths.
Ida is a poignant and powerful film looking beyond sound to detail the sensation of silence. It can absolve and define us, but silence also gives us the awful freedom to wade in our memories forever.