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With its powerful vision and scenic perfection, “Ida” puts the “art” in art-house movie, in the best way possible.

Director Pawel Pawlikow- ski has made a small masterpiece with his 80-minute drama about a pious novitiate nun who is about to take her vows. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) has known no other life – she was raised in the convent after being orphaned when the Nazis overtook Poland. But before she commits her life to Jesus Christ, her Mother Superior tells her, she needs to understand who she is. Anna is told she should meet her only surviving relative, an aunt who lives in a nearby city.

The reunion will be a watershed experience for both of them.

Pawlikowski’s choice of black and white for the film is more than an homage to its 1960s setting. The scenes are composed almost as living photos, stark in color and rich in emotional impact. Characters are tucked into corners of their surroundings when encounters are awkward or formal; faces fill the frame when they are fighting their interior demons. We move from remote observer to fellow travelers as the women dig deeper into the truth behind their shared history.

But first, we go along with Anna to the apartment of her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a brusque woman with no room in her life for long-lost relatives.

Sizing up the girl/woman in the mantle who has walked into her home, Wanda remarks, “So, you are a Jewish nun.”

The nuns had never told Anna.

Anna was born Ida Lebenstein, her aunt says sharply and summarizes her parent’s ethnicity before dismissing the stunned teen, telling her to go back to the convent.

Neither wants it to end this way, though, and soon the two take up the quest to find where the bodies – their family’s bodies – are buried.

“Ida” is two stories: First, of postwar Europe coming to grips with an unimaginable past, and more broadly, of why knowing the truth, no matter how painful, is a necessary part of knowing oneself.

This is immersion cinema, the kind that requires and rewards the commitment of the audience. You have to put yourself there, and, just like Ida, pick up on the signals around you. It is all image and words, no drumbeats telegraph danger, no violins tell us when to cry.

And maybe we are not supposed to cry. For these characters, whose wounds are scarred over but not healed, it could be too late for tears. In Wanda especially, sadness has been replaced by anger and bitterness, sex and drink stand in for love.

Ida’s loss, on the other hand, has been smoothed over by the patient care of nuns. Now, with her world turned inside out, she is confused and curious, less sad than unclear of what she lost.

Meanwhile, all around her, the world keeps going. The past, though buried none too well, is giving way to a new future, represented by a group of young musicians who perform pop for the café crowd and, after hours, jazz for themselves. For them, the war is over and done with, and life is for the living.

It is too late for Wanda, but this could be Ida’s world, if she could escape the one that formed her.

If she wanted to.

That, in the end, is what “Ida” is about – the choices people make out of fear and despair, out of love and prejudice, and when they are able, out of a strong sense of the kind of person they want to be.

IDA

3.5 stars

Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Running time: 80 minutes

Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking.

The Lowdown: In 1960 Poland, a young woman raised in a convent needs to discover her family’s painful secrets before becoming a nun. In Polish with subtitles.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com