Very cold and very beautiful, director Pawel Pawlikowski's IDA requires careful attention. Photographed in highly textured black-and-white, with a lean plot and sparse dialogue, it's the sort of film whose depths must be actively plumbed.
In the frigid winter of rural Poland in 1962, a teenage nun named Anna is weeks away from taking her final vows. Anna is a war orphan, raised in a convent after the Nazi occupation. As played by first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska, Anna is innocence embodied. Her wide eyes take in the world like a newborn's.
Before she takes her vows, though, she is instructed by her superiors to travel into town and meet her last living relative, a high-ranking official in the communist government. Aunt Wanda—boozy, cynical and damaged—greets her niece and coldly imparts a stunning bit of news: Anna's real name is Ida (pronounced ee-da), and she's a Jew, not a Catholic.
What follows is a sort of road movie in which Ida and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) travel together to learn the fate of their relatives at the end of the war. Wanda's sister was Ida's mother, and the older woman remembers: "She was an artistic type, always making things out of bits of cloth or glass. She once made a stained glass window and put it in the barn, to make the cows happy."
Ida and Wanda will find this window in a quest that takes them to old churches, remote farmhouses and grave sites deep in winter woods. They also find themselves in a nightclub at one point, where a handsome young musician introduces Ida to dancing and John Coltrane.
Along the way, Ida discovers the depth of her aunt's bitterness and despair. Wanda, we learn, was previously known as Red Wanda. As a state prosecutor during the Stalinist era, she sentenced many people to death. Nothing is explicitly stated, but it's clear that the horrors of recent Polish history have eroded her spirit. Wanda gets drunk, sleeps around and derides Ida's God: "Of course, I'm a slut and you're a little saint," Wanda observes one night. "But this Jesus of yours, he adored people like me."
Visually, Ida is a study in stillness. Each frame is carefully composed—so carefully, in fact, that the English subtitles are sometimes shunted off to different parts of the frame. The performers are often frozen in place as if in a painting. Movement takes on strange significance; a plume of cigarette smoke becomes captivating. Textures are impossibly detailed: a cascade of fabric, a patch of soil, a wooden tabletop. It's just this side of hypnotic.
The stillness also represents a storytelling style that's austere to the point of being miserly. Pawlikowski provides very little detail about the central tragedy. What we know, we must piece together from snatches of dialogue.
Trzebuchowska has a face you could stare into for years, all translucent skin and luminous eyes. But she isn't allowed to do much emoting, and the character remains inscrutable until the end. After the final scene, I sat in the dark for five minutes deciding why it ended as it did.
There's a profound film experience to be enjoyed in Ida. But you have to work for it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The good, the bad and the dreck"