For the first time, Paris-based director Pawel Pawlikowski (known for his BAFTA-winning Last Resort and giving Emily Blunt a break in My Summer of Love) returned to his native Poland in 2013 to make a movie. But this was no nostalgic journey home: With Ida, he evocatively examines historical ghosts and grapples with the scars of communism and the Holocaust.
Set in the 1960s, a young orphan, Anna (played by remarkable newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), is set to take her vows as a nun. Days before she is to accept a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, she is sent to visit her distant aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a successful judge and communist party member. After coolly welcoming the girl into her home while casually bidding adieu to a lover, Wanda unceremoniously reveals a secret from Anna’s – or, as it turns out, Ida’s – past. The revelation takes the unlikely duo on a road trip through the Polish countryside, where they literally and figuratively dig up old skeletons.
Being structured around a dramatic genealogical dark secret, Ida could easily have fallen into the realm of contrivance. Pawlikowski, however, elegantly evades such issues by leaving room for nuance in stark simplicity. (That is echoed in his choice to shoot in black and white.) Favouring long takes over didactic scripting, Pawlikowski lets his powerful imagery carry the film: Ida kneeling before a statue of Jesus at a desolate crossroad as Wanda waits by their car, smoking; the young girl dressed in her habit, watching a jazz band perform.
In these moments, Pawlikowski leaves the women’s inner turmoil ambiguous – making the two all the more compelling. Because of this, too, the characters’ all but over-determined roles (“I’m the slut and you’re the little saint,” snaps Wanda to her niece at one point) never feel like mere stereotypes.
So Ida’s allegorical turn is made even more powerful: Wanda represents the complex history of the Nazi occupation of Poland, and Ida is the generation born under that dark shadow.
The parable resonates emotionally thanks to Trzebuchowska’s performance. In her debut role, the actress masterfully negotiates the film’s challenging subtlety, offering glimpses into her character with only a slight movement of the corner of her mouth or by simply shifting her uncanny black eyes. More than a question of mere beauty, Trzebuchowska’s visage has a mesmerizing quality, being both ethereal and stoic.
Pawlikowski wisely plays to this by bookending the film with shots of the actress’s face. After opening with a medium shot of Ida patiently painting a life-sized sculpture of Jesus, in the final sequence she strides down a dirt road at dusk, her destination unknown.
While the rest of the film is meticulously framed, here Pawlikowski opts for handheld camerawork, adding to the unsettled feeling. Ida’s face remains unchanged, but there’s something in the way she holds her head that suggests she’s been forever altered by the history that haunts her present.