Ida, from writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, does not hold your hand. Set in 1960s Poland, the film is about Anna, a young novitiate who grew up in a convent after she was left there as a child. She’s ready to take her vows when the mother superior orders her to visit her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda. Apparently, there’s something Anna doesn’t know about her background that may affect her decision.
That something is that Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is Jewish, and that her parents were killed during World War II. Her birth name is Ida. Wanda (a terrifically sharp-tongued Agata Kulesza) did not want to have anything to do with Ida, despite the fact that the convent had contacted her several times, asking her to, at the very least, come and see her niece. When Ida shows up at her door, Wanda is caustic, almost immediately revealing that Ida’s a Jew and, soon after, says, “We’ve had our little family reunion. I must get dressed. I’m late.” Ida heads to the bus station.
Of course, Wanda changes her mind, and the deeper unearthing begins. This setup may make it seem as if Ida, co-written by first-time scripter Rebecca Lenkievich, has a normal amount of dialogue. But it will better ingratiate itself to those who prefer their movies quiet.
Shot digitally in stark black and white in a throwback 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Ida is far from a silent film, yet conversation (and, therefore, blatant exposition) is nearly limited enough to be contained on pre-talkie intertitles. You don’t, for example, discover Wanda is an alcoholic by seeing her slurring her words or being told she’s had enough. Instead, Pawlikowski shows her having a couple of drinks, closes in on her always stern and made-up face while she’s driving, and, after she blinks once, cuts to a scene of the car being pulled out of a ditch.
The director assumes the viewer knows a fair amount about the Holocaust, too, using terms like “enemies of the people” and including among Wanda’s personal photographs a famous one of Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse who helped smuggle Jewish children to safety. What the photo is doing there remains unknown; furthermore, it’s likely that anyone besides those intimately familiar with their history will even recognize who it is. Details that wouldn’t need to be spoken in Poland during that era remain unspoken.
Pawlikowski’s visual flair is bold enough to distract from the story’s particulars, too. Fond of expansive, pulled-back scenes with occasional extreme close-ups woven throughout, each shot is either framed like a traditional painting (Ida walking dead-center away from the convent in the snow, dwarfed by the building, which is shown in its entirety) or almost abstractly (faces lowering half out of the shot, bodies similarly dissected, characters placed in a lower corner with nothing but wall behind). His style is odd enough to infuriate, even more atypical than that of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Once you let it wash over you, though, the artistry is astounding, particularly in later scenes when the plot turns gut-wrenchingly dramatic.
Adding to Ida’s sense of strangeness is Ida herself. Trzebuchowska, recalling the subject of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” with her veil and heart-shaped face, has ink-dark eyes that look so unnatural, they’re more likely to be found in a horror movie. She’s lovely, yet alien, rare in her looks as well as her absolute innocence. The story ends up being less about Ida’s roots than the sheltered life she’s led; the question isn’t what she should do because she’s Jewish, but what she should do once she’s had a taste of the world, provided by the vice-ridden Wanda in a one-woman show. Ida isn’t haunted by the past like her aunt is, covering up her grief with hard edges. Instead, it’s the future that keeps Ida up at nights. After this 80-minute masterpiece, you’ll be preoccupied, too.