Shot in black-and-white and set in post-World War II Poland, Pavel Pavilkowski’s Ida seems like a remastered lost work from that era. The eponymous Ida (Agatha Trzebuchowska) is a young Catholic novitiate who discovers her Jewish heritage and is advised to put off taking her vows until she has explored the hidden secrets of her family’s past. She meets up with her only surviving relative, her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kuleza), a brilliant alcoholic jurist who takes Ida on a road trip to search for her family’s graves.
Ida is stern, brutal stuff. The barren, wintry landscapes Ida and Wanda travel through evoke the despair lurking just beneath the surface of 1962 Poland. The horrors of Nazi occupation have been replaced with the oppressive rule of the Soviet Union. The many unspeakable injustices go unacknowledged and remain unresolved.
It is Ida’s first time out in the world, and her sensualist Aunt isn’t much of a chaperone. She is in a strange sort of limbo — wearing her novitiate’s garb, she receives the respect accorded to nuns just as she is learning what it might be like to live as a worldly young woman.
Ida doesn’t talk much. The silences in the film stretch on for ages at times, but Pavilkowski manages them masterfully, and Trzebuchowska’s beautiful, unsmiling face manages to simultaneously push us away and engage us. The internal nature of the film will be alienating to some viewers, but it is the immense restraint, the bottling up of all that emotion that provides the tension and gives impetus to the story.
Ida is a beautiful, mesmeric film that depicts with grace and vicious honesty the shouldering on that follows immense tragedy.