From its opening shot Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida is a beautiful puzzle. In varying shades of charcoal gray a young nun is discovered in an unadorned room. It is a composed image straight out of Carl Theodor Dreyer - then something remarkable happens. The central figure (Agata Trzebuchowska) moves, and it is a much more fluid movement than the silent cinema this tableau evokes. Ida is shot on video, but lit, designed, framed and formatted for an earlier era. The result is one of the most striking visual experiences of the year. As luck would have it, the rest of the movie takes the mood this creates and runs with it.
The young woman, Anna, is called in to speak with the Mother Superior. Despite spending her whole life in the convent, she has a living relative after all. This relative - an Aunt - has requested a visit. So with that Anna enters the world.
It takes a moment to figure out the time period, but based on cars and later clues, figure it is the early 1960s. When Anna goes to her aunt's she opens the door to cha-cha music and a worldly woman in a silk robe. While Anna is wound-up and meek, her aunt has a loose gait and is very present. With little build-up she gets to her point: Anna, one week away from taking her vows at the convent, is actually Jewish.
Anna learns her name is Ida and her parents and brother (whom she never knew about) were killed along with the other 90% of Poland's Jews. Anna's aunt - a stoic judge, a notable member of Poland's new socialist government - decides she will help Anna try and locate where her parents are buried.
Thus begins a hunt through rainy small towns, overcast farms, foggy woods, empty pubs and other extremely photogenic locations. There are also nights spent in a drab hotel with something of a modern interior that - blam - ignites some life in the midst of all this dour digging to the past.
The pair pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a jazz saxophonist. He's playing a gig at the hotel, and the scene of his band blowin' through John Coltrane's "Naima" is tender and heartbreaking. Scenes at the hotel shimmer on the screen, the black and white images appearing silver. The 1960s are about to happen and beneath Anna's habit is a newly developed woman without any experiences other than quiet prayer.
Ida doesn't give you much when it presents a character - just a few lines (like the musician offering he has "some gypsy in his blood") and it expects you to do a lot of the work yourself. One thing I found myself doing - and this doesn't happen often - was forgetting to read the subtitles. Because the images were so damn beautiful.
The costumes, the record players, the butter knives - everything in Ida is wonderfully specific and glows on the screen, rich with history.
Anna's aunt spent her war years as a partisan, leaving her sister and family with others who promised to protect them. She never learned specifics of what actually happened and the final revelation is unimportant to her. Her sole purpose now is to rescue, as she sees it, her niece from imprisoning herself.
Not that her life is great shakes. She's a bit of a drunk and throws herself at men. "This Jesus of yours loves people like me," she boozily remarks to Anna before passing out one night (a line that may constitute Ida's sole joke.) The bond the two women form is tenuous at best, not enough, really, to ward off tragedy.
Ida is a quiet picture, absolutely sumptuous to the eye. One can read the murdered parents/Jewish identity aspect of the film as metaphor - Anna's awakening is a universal story of life at a crossroads. It's something everyone experiences at some point in their life. Just not always so breathtakingly beautiful as this.