Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is one of the quietest, subtlest movies around. Anna, its heroine, looks out of a pair of the deepest, darkest eyes I have seen on screen lately. She is about to take her vows as a nun when the Mother Superior tells her that she should say goodbye to her relatives. Anna replies that she is an orphan, brought up in the convent. She learns that there is an aunt who knows of her existence. Anna goes and visits her.
The movie takes most of its strength from the relationship between those two women. Anna wears her grey habit like armor. Aunt Wanda is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Communist judge who doesn’t hide her one-night stands from Anna. It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from her niece. Wanda tells Anna that her real name is Ida and that she is Jewish. Anna/Ida just looks at her aunt with those eyes of hers. There is no telling what she is thinking. Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Ida, is a newcomer, while Agata Kulesza must be one of Poland’s busiest actresses. Here, they are a match.
They go on a road trip to find the place where Ida’s parents and Wanda’s sister lived before the war. The scenes that follow are intriguing. They find the place, a farm. Other people live there now. This movie tells us in simple black and white pictures what has happened, to whom, and why. The movie doesn’t gasp, but it doesn’t flinch either. There are no flashbacks, but it’s clear all the same. There is unexpected humor and unexpected sadness in those scenes, both of which are somehow what is called for.
There is a lot of tension in the fact that a Jewish female judge dished out death sentences in the name of a Communist government, so much so that she got the nickname Red Wanda. She has lived with her secret all her life, whereas for Ida, it’s a revelation. She must deal with the fact that she has a very different religious background. The question is what she will do with that information. I wish the movie would have told me more about Ida: How does she feel about it? Is becoming a bride of God still her lot? Is it a choice she makes, and is it an easy one at that? Is she able to forgive her aunt for what she has done? In a way, Ida should be forgiving because of her vocation.
Story-wise, these are two interesting characters in that they both lead impossible lives. I wanted some more answers, but instead, Ida embarks on a short affair with a saxophone player that is clearly not as interesting as her relationship with Wanda. This part of the movie feels like a cop-out.
At the same time, the movie is beautifully shot. It features the rare 1.37:1 format, turning a rectangular screen into more of a square one. It is shot entirely in black and white, and strictly chronological. Things happen at the edge of the frame, or in a corner. Some shots depend on mood, not plot. The lack of color could have turned it into a leaden exercise in sadness, but it’s Ida’s face and Wanda’s stubbornness that make it all worthwhile. I would have liked to know more of both of them.