Agata Trzebuchowska, the young Polish star of Ida, has giant, dark orbs for eyes, each a pool of midnight-black water on the pallid landscape of her skin. She is what some would call “doe-eyed,” but is there more than innocence in those ocular circles? Do her pupils, rendered inky by the film’s monochromatic color scheme, also reflect the darkness of the world they detect? Ida casts Trzebuchowska as Anna, a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland. One week before taking her vows, the 18-year-old is instructed by the abbess of her convent to go speak with her only living relative. Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a jaded judge of the Communist Party, drops a bombshell on her niece: Anna, who’s spent her entire life in the company of devout Christians, is actually Ida, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi occupation. Her charcoal peepers widening with the news, Anna convinces Wanda to help her investigate further—to discover how her parents died and why she was spared. Cue the least frivolous road trip of all time.
Ida is the first movie Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer Of Love) has made in his homeland. That feels significant: In many respects, this austere, carefully composed drama is a trek into the past—an excavation of personal and national histories, many of them unpleasant. Pawlikowski, who’s evoking the grim Communist Poland he left as a teenager, shoots the film in pristine black and white and the boxy academy ratio, both of which lend it a classical, almost Bergmanesque allure. It’s a breathtakingly gorgeous movie, full of painterly backdrops and stark juxtapositions of light and dark, the latter exemplified by Anna’s white habits—a symbol of her purity—against various shades of oppressive grey. Going home has brought out a new confidence in Pawlikowski; he believes in his images, and in the truths they can convey. Over an efficient 80 minutes, no shot feels wasted, and no one says much that couldn’t be better communicated through their placement in the artfully arranged frame.
Bleakness creeps into Ida fast; the heroines’ journey is essentially the retracing of a funeral march, leading inexorably into the woods, to the dirty soil and the badly kept secrets it conceals. But this is no miserablist slog. Nestled within its sins-of-the-elders narrative is a faintly charming cross-generational bonding picture, pairing a worldly cynic with a young girl taking her last gasp of secular air before giving her life to the Lord. The two soften each other in different ways—Wanda coaxing curiosity out of her teenage charge, Anna inching her way into the affections of a woman who thought herself beyond affection. (A whole different movie could have been built around the damaged aunt, to whom Kulesza brings a seen-it-all weariness that’s affecting and almost seductive.) When the two bunk at a hotel, where a jazz band conjures a smoky romantic atmosphere, the film briefly flirts with a Lost In Translation quality—an impression amplified by a scene of Anna chatting with a suave suitor, their conversation framed against a series of windows and the warmly lit room on the other side. The future, Ida seems to be proclaiming, could very well be brighter. The key is to not to get too lost in the fog of a traumatic past.