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.
Into the mix comes a hitchhiker, Lis, a young jazz musician heading to the same town as the two women. He folds himself into the backseat of the Wartburg, a tinny period car that has all the charm of some Soviet-era economy-sized bug on wheels. Lis is meeting up with his band for a gig in town, and invites the women to hear the group play. This gives director Pawlikowski the chance to paint a picture of Cold War Poland’s enthusiasm for American jazz as Lis, a handsome master of the alto sax, plays beautifully plaintive numbers by John Coltrane. Here we see the yearning for another life that young Poles of the era are beginning to imagine, even in a backwater as remote as the small town where Wanda and Anna have camped inside a dreary hotel room. Anna/Ida withholds herself from any such festivities until a moment when she needs to be alone with her own thoughts after the difficult discoveries of the past few days.
Lis takes the opportunity to engage Anna in conversation, circumspectly, politely, but insistently revealing his interest in her while in the background the jazz music plays and young people dance. He challenges her to imagine yielding to sensory pleasure, at least to know what sacrifice she is making if she returns to the convent.
How this triangulation of three souls in need plays out is best left unreported. What should not go unremarked is the steadily paced narrative and elegantly framed cinematography of Pawlikowski’s film. An adopted Englishman, the director has returned to the Poland of his youth to stir memories and mix imaginative elements in a story that aims for moral gravity and something akin to nostalgia — not for the bleak landscapes and interiors of the Soviet period, but for those first hopeful moments during the Cold War era when music — jazz and Mozart heard at full throttle — put an oppressed people in touch with their fundamental humanity. As Pawlikowski says of music’s function in this almost silent movie, where dialogue is often spare: “My country may have been grey, oppressive and enslaved in the early ‘60s, but in some ways it was ‘cooler’ and more original than the Poland of today…”
One other key element in “Ida” should also be noted — the thrilling timbre of its three main performances. As Wanda, veteran actress Agata Kulesza offers a sure-footed portrayal of an embittered woman seeking some last act of redemption. Finally claiming the remains of three hidden Jews — her deceased sister, brother-in-law, and nephew — she and the Catholic Anna resettle them in a family plot of a now abandoned Jewish cemetery. Kulesza deserves all the attention this richly layered performance can get from so small a movie gem. As Anna/Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska — a non-professional cast at nearly the 11th hour — gives us a radiant performance the equal of a silent-era actress like Lillian Gish, or of Liv Ullman in one of her early Bergmann roles. Finally, Dawid Ogrodnik as Lis provides a relaxed portrait of a sexy and decent man ready to improvise his life as he improvises his music.
“Ida” may not end on exactly the note some viewers might wish, hoping, no doubt, for a denouement where each of the three main characters finds personal peace. And yet, for all that, Pawlikowski and his co-screenwriter, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, have engaged with both the dark history of the Holocaust and the grim period of the Iron Curtain to give us something that holds you totally in its grip and offers something like hope.