In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Odie Henderson makes the case for the best foreign language film of 2014: "Ida". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Picture and Best Director on Friday.
Set in the 1960s, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” looks retrieved from a time capsule sealed in that decade. Its distinctly European visuals evoke neorealism, the starkness of Bergman and the ubiquitous drabness of Eastern Europe after World War II. The black and white cinematography by Lucasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski is simultaneously gorgeous and bleak, as if all the colors on the visible spectrum were rendered as equally expressive scales of gray. Every scene is retrofitted into the Academy ratio, with the lighter shades of silver and grey serving as an oppressive white space at the top of the frame. Coupled with the static camera, the empty space draws the viewer’s eye in a top down motion, giving the impression of an unseen force pushing down on its characters.
Into these frames come Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, in a stunning debut), a novice nun and her sole living relative, Aunt Wanda (a fantastic Agata Kulesza). Wanda informs Anna that she is actually Ida, a Jew, and the two set off on a trip to discover the dark fate that befell their relatives during the war. Pawlikowski’s delicate though harrowing tone mirrors Ida’s own loss of innocence; the details of her family’s history inform and challenge Ida’s present actions while certifying and cementing Wanda’s past ones. As the two actresses give master classes on the acting complexities of existing in the moment, “Ida” subtly performs a shift of strength between them. The film’s last scene narratively says little, but the sudden, dynamic liberation of Pawlikowski’s camera speaks volumes, raising numerous questions about the titular character’s future.
The superb work behind and in front of the camera is the reason Ida won such awards as the Golden Lion at Poland’s Gdynia Film Festival and is currently the Foreign Film category front runner at the Academy Awards. It is our pick for the best foreign film of 2014.