A film shot in b&w in these digital times often seems like the visual equivalent of stunt casting (think “Nebraska”). Not so director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski’s spectacular “Ida,” its palette suited to a colorless time, 1962, Communist Poland.
With beautiful, precisely framed and composed images (few close-ups, characters are often small and isolated in the frame), little camera movement, perfect performances, and mournful quiet (music, while extremely important, is only employed Dogma-like–from a record player, a jazz band at a celebration–until the conclusion), Pawlikowksi tells the story of an 18-year-old novitiate nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan raised in a convent. First seen touching up the paint on the face of a statue of Jesus, she’s on the brink of taking her vows, when her Mother Superior reveals that Anna has a surviving aunt and sends her to visit.
Wanda Gruz (Agata Kwesza), a sophisticated, cynical and relatively prosperous Communist party insider (she has a spacious Warsaw apartment and wears pearls and a fur-trimmed coat) greets her niece warily. She tells her that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish and that her mother (Wanda’s beloved sister Roza) and father were murdered during the Nazi occupation.
The cloistered young woman, largely spared a knowledge and understanding of history, is determined to visit her parents’ graves. Wanda offers to drive to their village but says, that like all Polish Jews killed, “they have no graves” and adds provocatively, suggesting the question that if there’s a benevolent deity, how can evil exist in the world, “what if we go there and discover there is no God?”
Their journey is Ida’s first experience of the world, subtly registering in her watchful dark eyes–the devastation of the Holocaust, the Poles’ anti-semitism and complicity with the Nazis, the power of Communism, but also meals in restaurants, driving in a car, staying in a hotel, listening to live secular music and unknown feelings aroused by a shy flirtation with Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a handsome young saxophonist.
“Ida” works against conventional expectations. Although the women’s shared history and profound experience searching for Ida’s parents (and Wanda’s son) bring them close, affecting their inner lives, it’s too late to defy the past.
Wanda doesn’t find hope with her niece, or peace, irreparably derailed by the destruction of her family in the name of “racial purity” (accompanied by greed), and her career as a star Stalinist state prosecutor, enforcing ideological purity.
And Ida doesn’t become Jewish, her coming of age leads her to the only future she expected, and she chooses the path she believes leads to salvation over the sad world that was her birthright and the future’s challenge of uncertainty.