An emotional richness pulses beneath the aesthetic sobriety and stillness of Pawlikowski’s latest masterpiece, Ida. Wrenched from the safe but ultimately oppressive sanctuary of the convent, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) — a young novitiate nun who is just days away from undertaking her vows — is sent by her Mother Superior to reconnect with her only surviving relative. Upon meeting her aunt — the coarse, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Wanda (played tremendously by Agata Kulesza) — she is forced to confront a past and identity she could never have imagined: her true name is Ida Lebenstein and she is Jewish. Diametrically opposed in every way and yet bound together by blood, the two women embark upon a kind of pilgrimage to excavate the truth and to discover where — or indeed, whether — their murdered family was buried. Theirs is a journey into a shared past which yields horrific truths about the collusion between the Nazis who pursued the family and the Catholics who hid them.
As the wound of the past is prised open, this odd couple softens each other in different ways: Ida is tempted out of her unflinching self-denial into self-curiosity, whilst Wanda finds in Ida a gentle asylum from her depressive, self-sabotaging loneliness. Yet Pawlikowski never gives way to sentimentality: much of the film’s power and beauty lies in what is left unspoken. In one scene, the women give a lift to a handsome hitchhiker who, it emerges, is a talented saxophonist: the sexual attraction between him and Ida is expressed solely through fleeting looks and gestures. In another, Ida hovers at the top of a hotel staircase, at the bottom of which stirs the seductive growl of a jazz gig – a moment that is at once symbolic and understated.
The film’s stark monochrome palette is no stylistic indulgence either: it places the film firmly within the tradition of Polish New Wave cinema of the 1960s — a clever trompe-d’œil that makes the film feel as if it was made when it was set. But more importantly, it suggests a bleak, wintry austerity — both of the oppressive Stalinist regime in which Poland now finds itself and of the colourless sanctuary of a convent and faith by which Ida may soon be subsumed.
It would be all too easy to see Pawlikowski’s film as a candid exploration of the complexities of recent Polish history — of anti-Semitism and Catholicism; of Church and State. And yet, for all the political questions that the film poses, crude answers are cleverly sidestepped — and instead, we find a far more poignant, personal story of reconciling past and present.