As ascetic as the Catholic convent from which one of its characters emerges before taking her final vows, Pawel Pawlikowski’s austere black-and-white drama reveals a world of past pain in the history of his native land. “Ida” is intensely intimate, but the plight of its characters discloses the moral degeneracy in which their society is steeped.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a wartime Polish orphan who as a child was left at the convent where she was raised and is now, in the early 1960s, a deeply religious postulant about to become a full member of the order. But before she can take her vows, the mother superior informs her that she is to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a promiscuous, hard-drinking former state prosecutor whose devotion to the communist cause earned her a reputation for dealing harshly with anti-socialist elements.
When Anna appears at Wanda’s apartment just as a man is leaving, she shows no signs of being perturbed by the evidence of her aunt’s looseness, and retains her composure even after Wanda drops a bombshell: Anna is Jewish, the daughter of a couple killed by the Germans during their occupation of Poland. The older woman invites her to accompany her on a journey to locate her parents’ grave and learn the particulars of their death, and what follows is a sort of road trip, one that might end in knowledge but can never offer true emotional resolution.
Two major episodes occur in the course of their travels. One involves the pair’s confrontation with the Christian family that now lives in the house that once belonged to Anna’s parents, a meeting that includes the present generation of owners in the form of a peasant family, and the earlier one in the person of the husband’s father, who now lies dying in a hospital bed. The other episode focuses on their encounter with a member of a band named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), whom they give a ride to his next gig. Both open the door to larger issues, the first serving to disclose the complicity of many Polish Catholics in the Holocaust and the second providing an opportunity for Anna to face the choice she has to make between returning to the convent or remaining in the world. Incidental grace notes add weight to the context, as when a drunken Wanda is kept overnight by an officious local policeman, who after verifying her importance, becomes abjectly obsequious to her.
But “Ida” isn’t primarily concerned the details of the women’s investigation or a portrait of the country in which they live. Its main object is to examine their psyches and reveal their personal demons. For Anna, the journey becomes an issue of identity, of discovering who she really is and deciding what that must mean for her future. For Wanda, whose inner torment is obvious from her self-destructive behavior, it’s a means of achieving closure, which she does with brutal finality.
The performances are in perfect synch with the material, Kulesza flamboyant and Trzebuchowska controlled. And cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski visually accentuate Pawlikowski’s vision of a closed, oppressive system by shooting not only in deliberately grim black-and-white, but in the narrow, boxy aspect ratio of the thirties that conveys visually the constricted reality within which the characters must try to survive.
Pawlikowski is an expatriate—his previous films have been set in England (“Last Resort,” “My Summer of Love”) and France (“The Woman in the Fifth”). All were interesting efforts, if not entirely satisfying. None of them could have prepared one for “Ida,” an artistic triumph whose stunning simplicity conveys an entire world of moral complexity and human pain.