Cinematography and Inner Conflict in “Ida”


Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) has been a film that I have been meaning to see since I saw that it was available at the ZSR Library. Now it is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as for Best Cinematography. It even managed to claim the Spotlight Award from the American Society of Cinematographers last year. (Tapley) Contemporary films shot in black-and-white seem to usually get the Academy’s attention when it comes to cinematography nominations. I decided to watch Ida for this reason – to focus on how the filmmaker uses black-and-white cinematography. By doing this I was not only better able to appreciate the use of the camera, lighting, and color in this particular film, but realize the immense possibilities that shooting in black-and-white have to offer a director.

The film follows Anna (real name is Ida), a young woman living in a monastery. After years spent in this isolation she is ready to become a nun. Before she does so, however, she visits her sole living relative Wendy, a former judge that now engages in promiscuous behavior. When the two women first meet, it is clear that they are far different from each other. During their first encounter Wendy reveals to Anna that she was born as Ida. Not only that, but Anna is actually Jewish. The film then follows Anna’s journey with Wendy as they seek to uncover more about Anna’s past. All the while, Anna struggles with her identity as a nun in a vastly different world. The significance of lighting and color in telling the story is clear. Anna and the other aspiring nuns wear a grey uniform. The nuns, however, wear black-and-white garb. This foreshadows the uncertainty Anna will face throughout the film regarding what is good and what is bad as she ventures into the outside world. Using black-and-white here makes it even more obvious as the stark differences in color stand out.

Perhaps the most striking example of cinematography in this film being used to add to a story occurs when Anna is in a dark bedroom with Wendy, who wears a black dress and sits at the end of the bed. Her dress makes her blend in with the shadows. Anna flips a lamp at the opposite end and moves away from Wendy; closer to the light than the dark. She is wearing an uncertain grey, and is between the light of the lamp, and the darkness of Wendy and the shadows. Anna/Ida is trapped, conflicted between two worlds. For protection, she is more inclined towards the good side of light. Even Wendy bluntly tells her niece that, “I’m a slut, and you’re a little saint” to further hammer this point home. Anna/Ida is torn. Should she leave her covenant behind and join the world of sin as Ida? Or should she run back to her previous, sheltered life as Anna? In the end she realizes that she can no longer go through with her vows and leaves the covenant to embrace the outside world. Ida is a powerful film both in story and in imagery, and at times these two elements are not mutually exclusive. The use of lighting and color in such a way can be accomplished in color films, however it seems that using black and white makes the symbolic imagery even more impactful than it would have been.

Sources Consulted:

“Ida.” The Internet Movie Database. n.d. Web. 17 January 2015. ( (Ida’s page)

Tapley, Kristopher. “‘Concrete Night’, ‘The Immigrant’, and ‘Under the Skin’ Up for ASC’s Spotlight Award: The Prize Newly Minted Oscar Nominee ‘Ida’ Won Last Year.” HitFix. 16 Jan. 2015. Web.17 Jan. 2015. ( (Simply notes how Ida won the Spotlight Award from the American Society of Cinematographers)

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