Watching Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama “Ida,” is to immerse yourself in a film of great silences. Set in the grim landscape of postwar-Poland “Ida” follows Anna, a young Catholic nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) as she prepares to profess her vows in the convent she’s lived in since childhood. Before she can take this important step, the convent’s Mother Superior insists that she pay a visit to her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Obeying reluctantly, Anna’s appearance in Wanda’s life unmoors not only the older woman but Anna herself, who learns that her real name is Ida, and that her Jewish parents were murdered during World War II.
The film provides a beautifully-constructed look at how the past can simultaneously haunt and inform the present. It is an outstanding reflection on the violence that destroyed a country and a whole swath of its people, and it asks the important question: how do you move forward when you no longer know who you are?
Pawlikowski revels in these questions, and the movie’s cinematography reflects this interest. As Ida and Wanda journey through the countryside to their family’s ancestral home to find the place where Ida’s parents are buried, Pawlikowski takes us through a landscape so bleak as to be beautiful. Poland’s forests, which Ida observes in contemplative silence from the car window, echo the enforced silence of convent life, to which Ida ostensibly aspires. But Wanda, brooding and melancholy in the driver’s seat, her work as a harsh Communist party member never far from the edges of her character, seems as lost and defeated as the Poland that had sprung up from the wreckage of World War II. The ruins of her life–her lonely apartment, her bleak job, and her crushing loneliness–is thrown in sharp contrast to the orderly purpose of Ida’s life, which is evident from the film’s opening minutes.
The film’s pressing questions, of the nature of identity and the importance of the past as an object that informs the future, unfold so thoughtfully, with such grace and purpose, that it is impossible not to be moved by Pawlikowski’s achievement. Agata Trzebuchowska brings particular elegance to the role of Anna/Ida. She weighs her character’s uncertain commitments to church and religion alongside her determination to uncover her family’s past, and she does this so well that she nearly steals the film out from under Agata Kulesza. “Ida” is an uncompromisingly beautiful picture that deserves to be watched again and again.