One of the year's gems, photographed in velvety, expressive black-and-white by two different cinematographers working as one, "Ida" accomplishes so much, so surely in its 80 minutes, it's as if the director Pawel Pawlikowski had dared himself: How can I tell this fascinating story efficiently yet without rushing and abridging the narrative?
His answer is the film itself, set in early 1960s Poland, not so many years after the Nazi occupation. Eighteen-year-old Anna, played by the wonderful actress Agata Trzebuchowska, has been raised in a convent where she was left at birth in 1945 under unexplained circumstances. Now she is a novice, on the verge of taking her vows. Her wide eyes appear capable of infinite wonder, enormous kindness and receptivity.
Anna has a surviving relative, an aunt Wanda, whom Anna's superiors insist she contact before the vows. In the early scene of Anna on a trolley, taking in each passing sight, hungrily, director Pawlikowski stays close to his luminous protagonist, letting what she sees become all we need to see ourselves.
Aunt Wanda, played with boozy, wised-up confidence by Agata Kulesza, once upon a time was a state prosecutor, an exemplary Communist. By the 1960s her drinking and various infractions have caught up with her, and she's a magistrate with a corroded soul. Anna appears at her door, and her aunt tells her a life-changing bit of news. Anna is really Ida, a Jew, not a Catholic.
The rest of "Ida" follows these two on a road trip to learn the truth of Ida's parents' fates at the end of World War II. The aunt is wary. "What if you go there," she says of the provincial home Ida never knew she had, "and discover there is no God?"
There's a third major character, a hitchhiking jazz musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) who becomes Ida's conduit to the world she has been missing. An unlikely romance; an intimate chronicle of moral compromises, and far worse, made during and after Hitler; a young woman's crisis of faith: As "Ida" burrows down to the truth, the film gathers a stealthy momentum.
Pawlikowski's output has been uneven, a recent misfire being "The Woman in the Fifth," though earlier he showcased a youthful Emily Blunt to great effect in "My Summer of Love." The landscapes and feeling in "Ida" clearly come from a personal place, but the entire project has been fashioned with a lean clarity missing in too many other films today.
"Ida" - 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking )
Running time: 1:20; in Polish with English subtitles
Opens: Friday at Music Box Theatre