Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”)
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (debut)
Somber in tone and shot beautifully by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, the Polish film “Ida,” directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”), is one of quiet moments and emotion and framed so stunningly, those familiar with black and white photography might think they’re looking through the portfolios of great 20th century artists like Edouard Boubat or Roman Vishniac.
At a brisk 82-minute runtime, “Ida” tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novitiate nun in post-war 1960s Poland who was raised her entire life in an orphanage and is now nearing the end of her training so that she may take her vows and devote herself to her faith. Before she is able to do this, however, she is sent to spend some time with her only living relative, her worldly Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who has never acknowledged her existence despite being told many times over the years that she had an orphaned niece.
During her visit, Anna is informed of her family’s past, including the fact she is Jewish and that she was born with the name Ida Lebenstein. Wanda also tells Ida that her parents may have been killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Hoping to discover the truth of her roots and find where her parents are buried, Ida sets out with her aunt to confront the dark secrets of her family’s history and learn how she came to be raised in a convent.
It’s a sad journey Pawlikowski takes audiences on, not only because of what is revealed about Ida, but also because the circumstances may have led her into a life that was not meant for her to live. Where would Ida be if her aunt had actually faced reality and taken responsibility for her family? Wanda, too, has tortured herself with these questions and others. It doesn’t help that Ida looks exactly like the sister she loved and lost. Nor does it help that other life-altering decisions she made in the past have now come back to haunt her with Ida’s return.
As he does in his 2004 film “My Summer of Love,” Pawlikowski tests the faith of his characters and does so through a powerfully written dynamic between two strong women, who seem like complete opposites on the morality scale. If only Pawlikowski had built on more of the story inside the convent, so we knew exactly what Ida might be turning her back on, would the film have felt more urgent. In any case, “Ida” is still extremely compelling and elegant and brims with the suggestion that a very profound line separates fate and free will.