There’s beauty in every frame of “Ida,” which makes it all the more tragic that the film’s characters have so much trouble finding it. Yet even in recounting the story of a young woman who learns of her surprising family history on the verge of taking her vows as a nun in 1960s Poland, Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film could hardly be called bleak when it feels so alive, even as it examines the fractured psyche of the country still haunted by the Holocaust and caught within the trappings of a Communist regime.
With the stillness of post-war Poland strikingly realized by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, it is the “My Summer of Love” director’s first narrative to be set in the country of his birth, likely contributing to the spell “Ida” casts as much as the stark black-and-white photography or the John Coltrane that slinks its way onto the soundtrack. The latter, of course, is a harbinger of the modernity that’s going to come, far away from the bells of the church where we first meet the 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), whose frozen expression could be ascribed to either deep conviction or the wintry cold outside.
Yet Anna, who came to the church as an orphan, is shaken ever so slightly by the suggestion made by her mother superior to pay a visit to a previously unknown relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an equally chilly presence for reasons Anna soon discovers are in direct contrast to her own. A world weary former prosecutor nicknamed “Red Wanda,” she has seen far too much in life while Anna has seen too little, a dynamic that ultimately sends the two on the road and adds to the considerable thrust of their journey once Anna learns of her true identity as a Jew and her parents who went into hiding during World War II.
“What if you go there and discover there’s no God?” asks Wanda, once Anna decides to look for the graves of her deceased mother and father she never knew, allowing a cryptic smile to cross her face. The ever-so-slight smirk is indicative of the mildly mischievous tone Pawlikowski and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz strike throughout “Ida,” which unspools visually and verbally in short bursts that at once add to the intrigue surrounding Anna’s origins and reflect a past that’s only spoken about in hushed tones. Yet Pawlikowski invites the audience to take as much pleasure as Wanda does in seeing Anna seduced by the present, as a saxophone-playing hitchhiker the two pick up during their travels introduces Anna to jazz.
However shortlived those moments of happiness may be in “Ida,” they linger because of the skill of the filmmakers who pack a wealth of emotion into each carefully composed image. (Credit must not only be given to the cinematographers for this, but also whoever was considerate enough of English-speaking audiences to occasionally deviate from the traditional placement of subtitles to preserve the integrity of those images.) Trzebuchowska and Kulesza as Anna and Wanda, respectively, also command your attention, maintaining an elusiveness that’s even more compelling than the mystery at center of the story. Headed in opposite directions, they share in grappling with not knowing quite where they’re going, and yet in “Ida,” you know you’ll follow them anywhere.