Shot in rich black and white, “Ida” is a quiet, deliberately paced study of the end of innocence for a young Polish woman, Anna, raised an orphan in a convent. It is the early 1960s. On the verge of taking her vows, the Mother Superior tells Anna that her only living relative, an aunt, wants to see her. This is posed to the young novitiate as a task she must take up before renouncing the outside world. Anna leaves on the necessary journey, her hair modestly covered with her novice’s hooding.
So begins Pavel Pawlikowski’s sober, sometimes poetic and atmospheric inquiry into the weight of history upon a single life. For Anna discovers through her aunt Wanda that her parents were Jews in hiding during the Second World War. Together, Anna — named Ida at birth — and Wanda go seeking the truth of her parents’ fate in a bleak, out-of-the-way village, where, through Wanda’s brisk, no-nonsense queries of the locals, the two women discover a barebones farmhouse where Ida’s parents were hidden. Meeting with the present owners, a wary couple raising a small child, and the man’s father who is on his deathbed in hospital, “Ida” and Wanda are led to the grim truth of her parents’ fate.
While this strand of the story leads to an outcome predictable in its tragic dimensions, the film’s other equally pressing concern is the uncertain fate of its main protagonists — “Ida” and her aunt Wanda. A darkly attractive and worldly woman in her 40s, Wanda yields to the innocent, reserved Anna no particular tenderness or kindness. If anything, she is determined to show herself unadorned: vaguely promiscuous, cynical, world-weary, and probably an alcoholic. After the war, she became a successful prosecutor for Poland’s Communist regime, capable of administering rough justice in line with the Party’s ideological needs. Now she must live with herself — meaning with her survivor’s guilt, and with the knowledge of her own moral failings.