In Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”, the title character is a nun experiencing the outside world for the first time. She’s lived her entire life in solitude, innocent and naïve to her past or her culture. At just 82 minutes and in almost no time at all, watching “Ida” is like being released from your own protective bubble. Pawlikowski’s film is a shocking and powerful coming of age tale with the most picturesque visuals and a sly wit as part of a quiet, modest package. It’s one of the most surprising stories and cinematic achievements of the year.
Shot in the traditional Academy aspect ratio and in black and white, Pawlikowski channels early Dreyer for “Ida’s” impeccable look. His opening shot is an off-kilter framing of the title character that in a way places her at odds with the world, unsettled in the only home she knows. Inside this Polish convent, the conditions are poor, with chickens running around the grounds and the nuns painting and carrying a statue of Jesus as if it were a sacrificial lamb. During dinner the sisters eat soup as their spoons clink away in the room’s utter silence.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking her vows, but the head nun tells her that she has an aunt living in the city, her only remaining family. Anna’s aunt is Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking, tough-nosed civil servant who upon seeing her niece immediately unleashes a bombshell: her name is really Ida, her parents are in fact dead, and she’s a Jew.
Wanda’s wake-up call sets off a journey of spirituality and discovery as the pair of them travel to try and locate the graves of Ida’s parents. Pawlikowski gives us a sobering look at 1960s Poland, a country still feeling the ripple effects of the war. Wanda’s job involved prosecuting Communists, and the country is still so poor that when their car gets stuck in a ditch, horses have to haul it out.
“What if you go there and discover there is no God,” Wanda asks of Ida as she vows to find her parents’ graves. This too carefully reveals the horrors the war has left behind, but it’s a matter of time before Pawlikowski reveals the film’s truly haunting stakes and why Wanda is so undeterred on this quest.
Time and again within Pawlikowski’s framing, Ida looks out of place, visually never center and forever lost and distant. But in each glimpse of her Ida is a beacon of light in a gray world. The other characters look to her and see a glimmer of hope from amid the lifeless, hard faces. There’s music and dancing in this world, but we see so much through Wanda’s jaded, sarcastic eyes. At one point she observes “fancy stained glass next to cow shit,” and the description sticks.
“Ida” transforms in its closing act, revealing some complex themes of coming-of-age along with an emotionally fraught surprise. And yet the whole film seems to come out of nowhere. “You should try,” Wanda says to Ida about experiencing some sin. “Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Now a Golden Globe nominee and on the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film, “Ida” demands stepping outside a comfort zone and making something of a sacrifice, but it truly is rewarding.