There’s a ghostly pallor to Ida, and it begins with the eerie visage of a statue of Jesus seen in the opening moments of the film.
Anna, a young nun on the verge of taking her vows in 1960s Poland, is touching up the paint on the statue’s face before it’s brought outside and repositioned on the grounds of the convent. Shot in black and white, the sequence is a visual, aural and thematic homage to the work of Robert Bresson. We get a montage of stark imagery (feet shuffling under the weight of carrying the statue) and sparse onscreen sound (chickens clucking in the yard). There is the suggestion of religion as a haunting presence, a burden to bear. I almost expected to see the donkey from Au Hasard Balthazar wandering about in the background.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is prepared to take on this spiritual burden, but her superiors suggest she visit her only living relative before taking her vows (she had grown up as an orphan in the convent). And so she sets out to meet her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a sophisticated judge with an appetite for booze, cigarettes and men. Cold and dismissive, Wanda casually reveals startling details about Anna’s past, including that her real name is Ida. Later, she softens and agrees to take Anna to the village where her parents once lived. More ghosts will be exhumed.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, from a script he wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ida initially asks, What are the ties that bind? Family? Religion? The atrocities of the past? The movie proceeds to detail the ways in which each affects this particular young woman, and how knowing who you are is essential to knowing what you believe.
Wanda is both jealous and contemptuous of the serenity Anna seems to possess.
Trzebuchowska, as Anna, is necessarily a bit of a blank slate. With her fair skin and wide face, both framed by a gray habit, she’s the screen on which the movie is being projected. Quiet and observant, Anna is often expressionless under the camera’s intense gaze (Bresson again). It’s not always clear what she’s thinking until later in the film, when she begins to take independent action. And even then, her intentions are opaque. “I’m not thinking,” she quietly answers when someone asks what’s on her mind.
Kulesza has the livelier role of Wanda, and she delivers a remarkable performance. She gets a great entrance, answering her door upon Anna’s knock with a cigarette in hand, jazz bursting from a record player and a man dressing in the next room. Once in the village, Wanda goes Judge Judy on those who pretend they don’t remember Anna’s parents, putting her tough courtroom skills to work. But the aggressive attitude is an act, a way to cover up the anger, insecurity and loneliness she feels. Kulesza’s close-ups communicate all of this and more. She’s both jealous and contemptuous of the serenity Anna seems to possess.
Or is it naivete that Anna exhibits? The second half of the film, after Wanda and Anna return from the village, becomes a study of the fallout from this particular culture clash. For a while Ida seems headed for a trite last act, in which Anna is saved by the secular (particularly the jazz saxophonist who plays in the lobby hotel where Anna and Wanda were staying). But Ida makes an unexpected turn at the end that leaves things in a more opaque state. As Anna walks along a road, she seems freed from her past, yet still mindful of it. She’s something of a ghost herself, a faint echo of the family she never knew, yet also someone who’s finally beginning to walk her own path.