By NATHAN LERNER
“Ida” succeeds in merging an intensely personal tale with an engaging overview of mid-20th century European history.
Set in the Poland of 1962, the orphaned Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) has spent her entire life raised in a rural convent. There, she has been immersed in quiet contemplation and daily religious rituals, while being shielded from the secular world. We are introduced to her spare emotional life at the nightly dinner, where the obedient nuns silently consume their meals. It is a telling detail, the first of many in this carefully observed film.
Anna is an 18-year old nun novitiate, who is about to take her vows. Summoned to the office of the Mother Superior, Anna is informed for the first time that she has a living relative. Anna is ordered to meet this Aunt Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) before she is allowed to take her vows.
Bear in mind that Anna has always been stringently cloistered. She has never even ventured to the local beach. Now, Anna is about to be sent by herself via train to Warsaw to meet a total stranger in an alien setting. She has no idea of what awaits her.
Anna shows up at the apartment of her Aunt Wanda. She is greeted by her cigarette-smoking, middle-aged relative. In the backdrop, Wanda’s male companion of the prior evening is hurriedly dressing. Wanda is subsequently depicted freely consuming alcohol. This constitutes a stark contrast to the vice-free, ascetic modus vivendi that Anna has known.
If Anna has anticipated being greeted with an embrace of familial warmth, she is quickly disabused of that expectation. Wanda brusquely dismisses her, saying, “Now that we’ve had our little family reunion, you can go.” However, as the scene shifts, it becomes apparent that Wanda has reconsidered her initial decision.
Wanda discloses that she is Jewish and so were both of Anna’s parents. Indeed, Anna’s birth name was Ida Lebenstein. It is a shock to the protagonist’s identity, which was defined by her sense of Catholicism and afamiliality. However, she accepts the surprising news stoically.
As the film unfolds, Wanda also reveals her own checkered history. She had been a high-ranking Communist Party functionary. As a dogged state prosecutor, auntie had sent many to their deaths for breaches of the prevailing ideological dogma. She had even acquired the sobriquet, Red Wanda. Now, Wanda has fallen from power and been reduced to being a part-time magistrate.
Eventually, Wanda drops another bombshell. She shares her suspicions that Ida’s parents were murdered by anti-Semitic neighbors. Wanda suggests that the two reunited relatives venture to the countryside, where Ida’s parents disappeared. Together, the implacable Wanda and her more passive niece investigate what really happened during the dark days of World War II. Along the way, Ida discards her habit and wrestles with who she really is.
Pawel Pawlikowski, the director and co-screenwriter of “Ida, was lauded for his previous works. This included “Last Resort” and last year’s “Summer of Love.” “Ida” represents the first film that Pawlikowski has set and shot in his native Poland.
As constructed by Pawlikowski, the saintly naïf character of Anna/Ida is an excellent dramatic foil for her hardened, wordly Aunt Wanda. He elicits a naturalistic performance from newcomer, Agata Trzebuchowska, a non-actor, who was discovered in a Warsaw coffee shop. Agata Kulesza, who won the Polish Academy Award for her leading role in “Róza” contributes a complementary measured performance.
The production elements are consistently excellent. The astute shot composition by cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal greatly enhance this black and white production. Their lighting scheme accentuates the preternatural serenity of the titular character. The score by Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen captures the film’s atmospheric mood. The stark set design by Marcel Slawinski and Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska reflects the emotional austerity that pervades the film.
“Ida” is devoid of the slightest scintilla of sentimentality. This remarkable little gem illuminates the soul-scarring legacy of totalitarian rule under successive Nazi and Communist regimes. Despite its abbreviated running time and small budget, “Ida” delivers a powerful punch.
***1/2 PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking) 80 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.