Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Written by: Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a road movie imbued with a calm, tragic stillness. The story is set in early 1960s Poland, but its atmosphere is a more timeless evocation of post-World War II pain, where smoky lounge bars feel like a distraction from still unhealed national wounds. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novitiate nun preparing to take her vows, is largely sheltered from that world, until she’s instructed to learn more about her past by visiting Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her aunt and only known living relative.
(Spoilers ahead) Not long after she meets Wanda, Anna finds out she’s Jewish, and her real name gives the movie its title. Her family was slaughtered in the war by someone they thought was a friend, and she was spared, taken to a Catholic orphanage as a baby and raised without that knowledge. Throughout the story she is by turns petrified and embarrassed; petrified at the tragic turns of her journey of self-discovery, and embarrassed both by and for her aunt, who lives a very different life than that of a nun-in-waiting.
Kulesza and Trazebuchowska have two very different kinds of screen presence, and they help fill Pawlikowski’s still, distant frames with empathy for their characters. Kulesza utilizes her natural regality to give Wanda a confidence that becomes a shield from the unfathomable losses that the character, like so many, suffered during WWII. Anna, on the other hand, is a timid observer, and Trazebuchowska effectively embodies a woman who was raised to speak when spoken to and ask for permission about everything.
Wanda, a former judge, is ultimately unwilling to go on living in a world where someone can take her to the middle of the forest and dig up her son’s bones. Despite a good effort on Kulesza’s part, though, the scope of her pain never fully comes through. There seems to be an invisible barrier between the two actresses; the script quickly thrusts them together and their performance styles don’t mesh well enough to give the word-heavy construction of their relationship much weight.
Ida is about Anna awakening to her cultural identity while grappling with the one she was assigned in the Catholic orphanage. The movie doesn’t resolve that, ending with a shaky tracking shot of Anna walking down a dirt road at night. It seems to be the same dirt road she and Wanda drove down to visit her parents’ old home (and where they eventually uncovered their remains and those of Wanda’s son). However, even though at this point she’s backed off from taking her final vows, she’s still dressed as a nun. She’s embraced the fun parts of her aunt’s lifestyle she initially rejected– trying on Wanda’s dresses and shoes, uncoiling her hair, having sex – but the movie ends emphasizing her isolation.
She is detached from the conventional idea of family, and the movie’s shared insistence on that detachment doesn’t always work. The script’s dialogue throws out plot developments with a casual matter-of-factness that makes the central road trip seem incidental and largely unnecessary to the story’s progression. Though they’re looking for the spot where their loved ones are buried, Wanda knows the horrific circumstances of those deaths, and the script puts a greater weight on that knowledge than in the location of the remains. It’s Wanda’s attempt to change the miserable routine of her life while Anna watches from the sidelines, unsure of exactly what to feel. I felt the same way about the story much of the time, but the gorgeous black-and-white images create a haunted world that is often breathtaking.