Spare, haunting, uncompromising, “Ida” is a film of exceptional artistry whose emotions are as potent and persuasive as its images are indelibly beautiful.
The first film in his native Poland by the gifted Britain-based director Pawel Pawlikowski, “Ida” is simultaneously simple and complex, timely and outside of time.
It tells the story of a woman’s search for identity in 1962, and effortlessly brings in issues roiling contemporary Poland as well as themes of trauma and redemption as old as the ancient Greeks.
Pawlikowski’s previous films include the too-little-seen “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love,” Emily Blunt’s breakout role. Collaborating with co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, he is working here in such a pared-down but explosive fashion, that “Ida’s” brief 80-minute length is sufficient to make a piercing impression.
From its opening sequence of a young novitiate named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) touching up a sculptural head of Christ in her rural convent, the beauty and serenity of “Ida’s” images all but overpower us.
DIRECTED BY: Pawel Pawlikowski
STARRING: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Halina Skoczynska and Dawid Ogrodnik
RATED: PG-13 GRADE: A
RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes; in Polish with subtitles
Shot in black and white with a camera that rarely moves, these arresting compositions make the convent look like a serene paradise for a believer, which 18-year-old Anna, an orphan who has spent her life there, is.
Just days from taking her vows, Anna’s aunt, a woman named Wanda Grosz, asks to see her, and the Mother Superior mandates a visit.
We meet Wanda (a commanding Agata Kulesza) before Anna does, and two more different women could not be imagined. A drinker and chain smoker, Wanda is an unapologetic atheist with significant ties to Poland’s Communist hierarchy.
She sits Anna down and tells her point-blank, “You are a Jew.” Her real name is Ida, her parents were killed during World War II, and she was sent to the convent.
Wanda shows Ida photos of the family she has never known. When Ida asks where her parents were buried, Wanda tell her brusquely, “they have no graves, no Jews do. No one knows where the bodies are.”
For reasons that have as much to do with her own past as they do with Ida, Wanda takes the novitiate on a road trip with to find those lost graves. Together they confront aspects of Poland’s past, ghosts from the Nazi and Stalinist eras, and what happens when they push past the inevitable resistance changes both of them profoundly.
Though strands of plot touch contemporary chords — young adults suddenly being told they are Jewish is very much a current issue in Poland — there is nothing overtly ideological about “Ida.” Its concerns are predominantly personal and emotional.
Pawlikowski, who has a strong documentary background, took a chance on Trzebuchowska, a young woman of remarkable poise and presence who had never acted and has no interest in the profession.
It is her face, and her character’s existential and practical journey, that hold our interest. Ida is forced to embrace the complexity of who she is, and the question of the film is not whether this knowledge will change her but how and how much.