Ida is such a quiet person that even her eyes seem silent. She's a novice nun preparing to take her vows of chastity, and she fulfills her daily duties with unwavering solemnity. She feels entirely ready to devote her life to Christ for the remainder of her days, but her prioress insists that she spend some time in the “real world” first. Ida is instructed to visit Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), her only living relative. During this visit, Ida is given some startling personal history: her birth parents were Jewish, and were killed during World War II. There's precious little information available beyond that, but Ida is determined to dig deeper and uncover the details. Wanda agrees to join her, despite the fact that she would prefer to leave the horrors of the past uncovered.
Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida is only 82 minutes long, but that's because it never wastes a single shot. The film's intense focus on its central character and its core subject matter is remarkable. The set design and black-and-white cinematography benefit from unwavering austerity, the dialogue never allows room for idle chatter or throwaway lines and lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska (making her film debut) only permits her character's inner feelings to rise to the surface on rare occasions. There will undoubtedly be those who find it slow and uneventful, but I found myself completely in the grip of Pawlikowski's work. I'm reminded of the old carpentry adage: “Imagine a duck, and carve away everything that isn't a duck.” This is a film which knows precisely how to tell the story it wishes to tell, and that story is a powerful one with relevance far beyond the film's particular location and setting (Poland in the early '60s).
The film's first hour or so devotes itself to solving the mystery of Ida's past, which she uncovers in bits and pieces from folks who live in her parents' hometown. As she focuses on putting the pieces together, she's exposed to a variety of secular behaviors she's been shielded from at the convent. Much of this comes from spending time with Wanda, who smokes, drinks and indulges in casual sex on a regular basis. Wanda's lifestyle doesn't seem rooted in hedonistic impulses, but rather an almost desperate desire to numb her true feelings. Wanda was once an infamous prosecutor, but now works as a low-level judge. Was her alcoholism responsible for her fall from grace, or did it start in the wake of that fall? Either way, she's a troubled woman who wears her feelings on her sleeve as consistently as Ida buries hers.
There are a number of elements here which will inevitably push potential viewers away. It's a black-and-white, slow-paced foreign film starring unknown actors and tackling a difficult subject, but viewers willing to accept those terms will discover a movie completely free of pretense or self-indulgence. Every directorial choice here feels deliberate and necessary. Its chilly aesthetic and reflective, challenging portrait of a spiritual crisis reminds me of Ingmar Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy - indeed, there are shades of all three of those films within Ida's deceptively simple framework.
I won't reveal the truths Ida and Wanda uncover, but I will say that the film's final act details the emotional fallout both characters experience in the wake of their discovery. It's a subtly devastating series of scenes, concluding with a sequence in which very little happens on the surface while heartbreaking things happen below the surface. This isn't just another Holocaust-themed tragedy, but something much larger. It's difficult to live in a world in which terrible things happen, but arguably even more difficult to live in a world which would rather sweep those horrible things under the rug and pretend they don't exist.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 82 minutes
Release Year: 2013