Ida, a small black-and-white masterpiece currently getting its American release, is set in Poland in the 1960s, and it feels as if it could have been filmed in the ’60s as well: It’s like finding a lost Bresson or Bergman in a time capsule, a missing link from the age of the auteur.
The director is Pawel Pawlikowski, a Pole who spent his childhood under Communism and then moved with his parents to the United Kingdom when he was a teenager. He has made his career to date in England, as an English-language filmmaker, so this is a homecoming, a return — a triumphant one for the director, built on the rather darker journey that his characters undertake.
They are a young woman and her aunt, meeting for the first time since World War II. The young woman, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), raised in a convent and unacquainted with the world outside its walls, is weeks away from making her final vows when the mother superior sends her out to meet her only living relative, whom she knows only as the person who repeatedly declined to take over her rearing from the nuns. That relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is worldly and weary, once a true-believing state prosecutor for the Polish Communist regime — “Red Wanda,” they called her — and now a disillusioned apparatchik in middle age, who smokes and drinks and takes men home without seeming to find much enjoyment in it.
She is also Jewish, as was their entire family — a fact with which her niece, the future nun, was previously unacquainted. And soon the women, oddly matched, are on a journey into the Polish countryside to find the place where Ida’s parents — who were killed, of course, during the war, though at whose hands is initially unclear — found their final (or, it turns out, not quite final) resting place.
The journey offers a test of faith, a study in human contrasts — old and young, cynical and innocent, secular/Jewish and Catholic — and a partial (and eventually literal) excavation of the crimes and horrors and tragedies that Poland’s Communist regime tried to seal away under ideology and drab concrete. A few developments are predictable — when the women pick up a young hitchhiking saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik), you will not be surprised at the role he ends up playing in Ida’s encounter with the world — but the overall narrative, its various turns and twists and endings, is neither tidy nor simplistic. This is a film in which many different strands entangle, and Pawlikowski treats all of them — religion, psychology, history — with the seriousness they deserve. (The contrast with how a Hollywood studio would handle the same material is too painful to be contemplated, as is the number of Oscar nominations the end result would probably receive.)
Kulesza is a celebrated Polish actress, and she lives up to that reputation here. Trzebuchowska is an unknown, reportedly plucked from a café for the role, and for a while she is overshadowed by the older actress — remaining inscrutable and implausibly placid, despite a wide and wide-eyed face, while Kulesza unpeels layer after layer from her embittered, tragedy-stalked character. But as Ida’s encounter with the world proceeds, her inscrutability lends a significance to small gestures — a lifted lip, a widened eye — that amplifies every hint of feeling, every sign of alteration or uncertainty or sorrow. We don’t know exactly what’s happening in her depths, but you have a sense that the secrets of the universe are being worked out there, behind her eyes and underneath her wimple.
In addition to using black-and-white, Pawlikowski has shot the film in a determinedly old-fashioned style: The aspect ratio is the boxy 1.33:1; the camera is positioned and then rarely moves; the music is mostly what the characters hear on radios and gramophones and what they play themselves. Many shots place the characters below the midpoint of the frame, so that we have a kind of hovering view of them — something in between a God’s-eye view and a human one, like the perspective of the angels, or the not-yet-ascended dead.
Those dead haunt Ida, and Pawlikowski, the returning native, delivers a small piece of the long-denied remembering they deserve. Poland is fortunate to have his talent. We are fortunate to have this movie.