The best cinematic news of my year so far is that Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, an 80-minute black-and-white film about a young nun in post-World War II Poland, is getting a U.S. release. Over the past year, Ida has made the rounds at world film festivals, collecting prizes and rapturous responses. (It was the single best thing I saw at Sundance, and that’s in a year when I got to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.) But I feared that for American distributors, this spare, quiet, perfect work would seem too rarefied a product to find its place on the market. I’m glad the people at Music Box Films took a chance on the right audience finding Ida—please prove them right by finding a way to see it. (The film opens this weekend in New York and L.A., moves to other major cities throughout the summer, and will be available on demand and on DVD in September.)
In many ways, Ida feels like a film that might have been made anytime in the past 50 years. It’s set in the early 1960s, and its stylistic austerity and interest in theological questions often recall the work of Robert Bresson (though Pawlikowski lacks—I think—Bresson’s deeply held faith in salvation.) But there’s an urgency to Ida’s simple, elemental story that makes it seem timely, or maybe just timeless.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an 18-year-old novitiate in a remote Polish abbey. One day the mother superior calls her in to give her some news: Before Ida takes her vows and disappears into monastic life for good, she must take a bus to the city to meet the aunt who’s her only living relative. Anna, who was orphaned as an infant and raised by the nuns, knows nothing about her past, but within minutes of arriving at the apartment of her brusque, worldly aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), it’s all been spelled out: Anna, a Jew, was born Ida Lebenstein and put up for adoption by her parents before they went into hiding with a Christian family. Though the Lebensteins presumably perished in the war, the whereabouts of their bodies are unknown, and Wanda uses her niece’s visit as a pretext to drive to the family’s old farmhouse—now occupied by the son of the man who sheltered them—and try to find out what happened to Ida’s parents.
What follows is an admirably compact and elegant (if ultimately gut-wrenching) road movie that traces the developing relationship between the naïve, pious Anna and the disillusioned Wanda, a high-functioning alcoholic who works as a judge in the communist government. Now a wearily cynical bureaucrat, she was known a decade ago as “Red Wanda” for her zeal as a prosecutor of enemies of the state. As played, stupendously, by the veteran Polish TV, stage, and film actress Agata Kulesza, Wanda is a vortex of a character, as fascinating to spend time with as she is bottomlessly sad. You get the feeling she’s seen (and perhaps caused) so much suffering in her life that she can hardly repress a smile at the mention of her niece’s all-merciful God.
The other Agata, young Ms. Trzebuchowska, is a first-time actor, a student who was spotted at a Warsaw café by a friend of the director’s and asked to test for the role. That casting method doesn’t always work out, especially when the newbie has to play opposite a seasoned professional like Kulesza. But Trzebuchowska, a stunning beauty with a steady, wide-eyed gaze, endows her near-silent character with a rich inner conflict: Anna is a young girl who’s both terrified and curious to discover the joys of earthly, carnal existence.
Midway through the movie, niece and aunt stop for a few nights at a provincial hotel where a vaguely beatnik rock ’n’ roll band is engaged to play. The saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik), a handsome, disaffected youth of the sort that used to hang around Antonioni movies, likes to spend his after hours playing Coltrane covers and flirting with the pretty nun in the audience. Aunt Wanda does what she can to nudge this flirtation in a less chaste direction. (As she puts teasingly it to Anna, “you should try—otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”) Somehow, the romantic interlude between Anna and the sax player doesn’t seem out of place side by side with the film’s dark last third, in which we learn more about her parents’ fate during the war. Rather, the two plots function as a variation on the same theme, as Anna/Ida begins for the first time to dare to imagine what it would be like to have not only a past but a future family.
There isn’t a frame of Ida (which was shot in the classic, squared-off 1.37:1 “Academy ratio” by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) that isn’t composed with superb artistry and attention to detail. Pawlikowski, a U.K.-based director working for the first time in his native Poland, likes to use natural light coming in through a window, and many of his images, especially in the early scenes at the monastery, are as crisp and luminous as Vermeer paintings drained of color. He often places characters low in the frame, as if to emphasize their humility or insignificance in the grander scheme of history—his sense of composition is almost Japanese at times. The soundtrack contains no extradiegetic music—that is, music the characters aren’t listening to themselves—but all the music that’s there is significant and carefully chosen, from Wanda’s treasured collection of classical LPs to the tinny Polish pop that plays on the car radio as the women drive toward their grim destination. The truths this young nun and her aunt discover in the Polish countryside are terrible, but the journey they undertake together to unearth those secrets is hauntingly beautiful. Take it with them.