Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film IDA is visually stunning. I am a painter whose work deals with light and color; this film extrudes color out of infinite blacks, grays, and whites culminating in a blinding silver light. The poetry of tonal form in synch with the secrets of the unknown, contrasting the innocence of spiritual isolation with the realities of political ideologies has a streaming effect on the bloodlines of our interior selves.
We meet Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska in a beautifully understated performance) - a novitiate nun running through the snow with her “sisters” lightly carrying a statue of Jesus Christ, which is gently lowered into a circular crevice in front of the Convent where Anna has been sheltered for the past 18-20 years, having been brought there as an orphan when she was an infant in the early 1940’s. The time is now 1962 and the place is Poland under Communist rule.
Before taking her vows, Anna follows the advice of the Mother Superior to visit her only living relative, an aunt who over the years has never attempted to contact her. Anna’s simple, spare, and silent world, where the love of God consummated her every need, leaves the Monastery for the first time, braving surroundings that are antithetical to the tranquillity and stoicism that she is accustomed to.
As soon as Anna meets her mother’s sister, Aunt Wanda, a once beautiful woman, now disheveled, wearily smoking, a drink sloshing in her hand,a man in partial undress glimpsed in the back room, Anna is told that her real name is Ida and that she is Jewish - a shocking revelation, but Anna/Ida’s response to this news is barely perceptible. Her lovely face never reveals private intimate turmoil. Agata Kulesza is excellent as Wanda who we get to know as brutally honest and uncompromising - a Communist state functionary - an ex-prosecutor who is now a Judge living with having made desperate life decisions that are remorselessly haunting - a woman attempting to survive anguished memories.
IDA becomes an intimate existential road trip, so authentically filmed that the ambiance of the subsistence countryside envelops us with its rough beauty, The two women attempt to uncover the secrets of their horrific past living under Nazi occupied rule, and the ramifications of being a Jew in a country where the innocent were literally slaughtered because of fascist ideology, often with the compliance of their fellow human beings. We witness history unfolding a generation later - the same country now under totalitarian Communist rule.
Anna/Ida during this short period of time is faced with choices that affect the very essence of her understanding of the outside world, beyond her previously cloistered life, questioning the ecstatic power of faith vs.the banality of everyday existence.