Rule of thumb: If a movie is in some way about the Holocaust, the filmmakers have failed if the audience walks out “inspired” or feeling uplifted in some way. Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski has not failed with the wrenching, beautiful, unnerving and ultimately heartbreaking Ida.
Set in Poland in the 1960s, Ida introduces us to the title character, a novitiate just weeks away from becoming a full-fledged nun, as she works to restore a wooden statue of Christ. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) doesn’t even know that her real name is “Ida” as she intently brushes paint on Jesus’ face. When she and her fellow nuns-in-training struggle to place their savior back on his outdoor pedestal, they’re shown in long shot, small figures overwhelmed by the convent and the dead landscape of the Polish winter.
The director is telling us something. As the picture goes on, Anna is routinely framed in this manner.
Before she can become a nun, however, the Mother Superior calls Anna in and tells her she must first visit her only living relative, an aunt who lives in the city.
When Anna arrives at her aunt’s flat, we see the wide gulf between them. As her lover dresses to go, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) dispassionately informs Anna that her real name is Ida; that she is Jewish; and that her parents were murdered in the war and buried God only knows where. Anna/Ida wants to find their remains, setting them off on a road trip that becomes a character study of the two women and of Poland itself.
We learn that “Red Wanda” is a Communist, a former state prosecutor put out to pasture as a judge. Clearly, Wanda sees the revolution as a failure; she spends a lot of time drowning her sorrows with vodka. In the search for Ida’s mother/her sister, however, we see flashes of the ruthless interrogator she once was. This aspect of the film is fascinating: If the Communist regime is presented, correctly, as a failure, the Poles who cling to Catholicism aren’t very sympathetic either. If you’ve seen Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah, you’ll recognize these people of postwar Poland.
Anna, meanwhile, still sees herself as “Anna,” though her hold on the cross and habit slowly slips away in the face of her family’s fate.
Shot in gorgeously austere black-and-white and in the old Academy aspect ratio (a square-ish 1.37:1 as opposed to the 1.78:1 of widescreen TVs or the letterbox-shaped CinemaScope ratio of 2.35:1), the visual scheme eschews warmth and embraces delicate compositions and unforgiving shades of gray that reflect the story’s moral quandaries.
You will walk out of Ida haunted, and left with more questions than answers—which is terrific.