Young and naive, middle-aged and cynical. An orphan raised in a convent and a chain-smoking, hard-drinking judge.
These are the two women who meet in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” embarking on a road trip across the bleak terrain of 1960s Communist Poland – a road trip at once tragic, hopeful, and unforgettable.
Played with riveting quietude by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, Anna is a novice, preparing to take her vows in a nunnery hidden away in the Polish countryside. But in the days before she is to become a nun, the prioress gives her news: Anna has an aunt. She lives in Warsaw. Anna must go there to meet Wanda (the darkly comic Agata Kulesza), and learn what she can about her family and the parents Anna never knew.
The women’s obligatory encounter begins on a cold, unceremonious note. It turns into something that will change their lives.
Pawlikowski, making his first film in his homeland since establishing himself in the U.K. (with the Russian émigré story “Last Resort” and his tale of obsessive teenage friendship, “My Summer of Love”), has crafted a masterpiece. Shot in black and white, Ida is slow-moving, observational – the camera doesn’t swoop or glide, it remains still, records. There are no restless, gratuitous edits – the women talk, or walk, or drive, and the scenes end when they should. Space fills the frame – the wide gray of the sky, the smoky gloom of a bar, the rough white walls of a room.
Wanda is a prosecutor under Poland’s Stalinist regime, sentencing people to prison, and sometimes, to death. She and Anna take off (in an almost comically utilitarian car) to trace the history of Anna’s father and mother, Wanda’s sister. It is a history bound up in the anti-Semitic purges of World War II.
“Ida” uses music – cheesy vintage Euro-pop, American jazz, Mozart – in ways that not only underline the moment, but also define it. The women meet a young, itinerant saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik). The fluid, soulful Coltrane he urges from his instrument represents a Western-style freedom, a sense of possibility. Then, one night in a cavernous club with a checkered tile floor, Anna and the musician, Lis, dance.
“Ida” takes some profoundly disturbing turns. Its moments of discovery, dread, and devotion resonate. Both actresses – Trzebuchowska watchful, thoughtful, and Kulesza tough, funny, haunted – are extraordinary. So, too, is the film they find themselves in.