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 by design simultaneously simple and complex, timely and outside of time. It tells the story of one specific young woman's search for identity in 1962, and in so doing effortlessly brings in issues roiling contemporary Poland as well as themes of trauma and redemption that are 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, with not a frame wasted, 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.
Shot by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenkczekicz in black and white and the classic 1.33:1 format with a camera that rarely moves, these arresting compositions make the convent look very much like a serene paradise for a believer, which 18-year-old Anna, an orphan who has spent her life there, definitely is.
Just days away from taking her vows, however, Anna is about to be cast out of this peaceful realm. It seems that Anna's aunt, a woman named Wanda Grosz, has asked to see her, and the Mother Superior mandates a visit. Immediately.
We meet Wanda (a commanding Agata Kulesza) before Anna does, and two more different women could not be imagined. A drinker and chain smoker and a bit of a libertine, Wanda is an unapologetic atheist with, we gradually learn, significant ties to Poland's Communist hierarchy.
Wanda is so different from Anna, the older woman almost turns around and doesn't introduce herself to the naive young person who waits for her at the agreed-upon bus station rendezvous. But the news she feels compelled to impart is too critical for her to turn away.
Taking Anna home, Wanda sits her down and tells her point-blank, "You are a Jew." Her name is not Anna but Ida, her parents were killed during World War II, at which point she was given over to the convent.
At first Wanda, whose sister was Ida's mother, is content to leave it at that. Cynical, jittery, troubled, she would be more comfortable if Ida went on her way. But now that she has seen her niece again, part of Wanda can't let her go. She shows the younger woman photographs of the mother and 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 issues, her own past, as they do with Ida, Wanda determines to take her old Wartburg car on a joint road trip with the novitiate to find those lost graves. Together they confront different aspects of Poland's past, ghosts from the Nazi era and the Stalinist one, and what transpires when they push past the inevitable resistance changes both of them profoundly.
Though strands of plot touch contemporary chords — the issue of 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, like watching what transpires when the two women pick up a hitchhiking musician named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) on the way to a desultory gig.
Pawlikowski had a strong documentary film background before taking on dramatic features, and that perhaps led to the major chance he took in casting Trzebuchowska, a young woman of remarkable poise and presence who had never acted before and has no interest in the profession, in the title role.
It is Trzebuchowska's face, and her character's situation, her existential and practical journey, that hold our interest in "Ida." Starting as a woman of unquestioned faith, she is forced by circumstances 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. There are no easy answers to the riddles life poses, none at all.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking
Running time: 80 minutes