The one film you should see this year . . . .

I absolutely hate that kind of statement.

However, if someone asked you what to see this weekend, you can't do any better than Ida, the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski, which opens Friday in New York at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza. It will also be opening in LA and will have a national release shortly after. (If you aren't in NYC, you can find other theaters showing the film here.)

When it closed this year's New York Jewish Film Festival, I wrote the following:

Ida is Pawel Pawlikowski’s fifth feature. The Warsaw-born filmmaker made his previous films (and numerous television documentaries) in the UK, but for this latest work he went home for the first time in his career. Like his best-known early films, Last Resort and My Summer of Love Pawlikowski’s new work centers on the state of mind of a young woman faced with an unexpected fork in her personal road. Like the other two films, Ida draws us into the protagonist’s subjective world slowly, inexorably, with subtle modulations of tone achieved mainly through his rigorous visual style. Ida is a film whose power can be felt moment by moment — Pawlikowski’s control is that formidable — but it is the cumulative effect of its slow unwinding that gives the film an unholy force. To be blunt, it is a masterpiece, a work of concision, compression and restraint, great formal elegance and emotional acuity.

Ida is an austere work, filmed in starkly beautiful black and white, shot by Pawlikowski’s long-time cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, with Lukasz Zal. The film was made in the old-fashioned 1:33-1 aspect ratio, creating an image that is almost a square and that looks awkwardly unfamiliar to contemporary audiences (although it stood filmmakers in good stead for most of the first sixty years of the medium’s history). We are in a convent, somewhere in Poland in 1962, and, enshrouded in a mist snow flurries, a group of nuns are slowly, somberly replacing a statue of Jesus.

Aunt Wanda and Anna/Ida 

One of those nuns, Sister Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), is a novitiate, shortly to take her vows; what she doesn’t know is that her only surviving relative, a distant aunt, is about to overturn all the certainties in her life by revealing that she was a hidden child named Ida Lebenstein, the Jewish daughter of a woman who died in the camps. Wanda, her aunt (Agata Kulesza), is a magistrate, at least superficially at ease in the middle ranks of the Communist regime; in reality, she is a self-loathing alcoholic with few certainties of her own. The pair will journey across rural Poland seeking the burial place of Anna/Ida’s mother, Wanda’s sister.

Although it partakes of some of the tropes of the road movie, Ida is no comedy-drama of mismatched partners redeeming one another. Filmed almost entirely with a stationary camera and off-center framing, the film skillfully disrupts the viewer’s equilibrium wrong-foots an audience skillfully, leaving us as devoid of certainty as the two women at its center. With its powerful sense of the spirituality behind ritual, Ida may be the most Bressonian film I’ve seen since the great Robert Bresson died, and it is without a doubt going to be one of the best films of 2014. 

My interview with Pawlikowski is now up on the Jewish Week website and, if I say so myself, it's worth a look.