Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida focuses on the titular nun and WWII survivor’s (Agata Trzebuchowska) trip with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a no-nonsense judge, to investigate the whereabouts of Ida’s family and Wanda’s son. Set in rural Poland in the wake of Hitler’s downfall, and decked out in stark, often gorgeous black and white, the story might have been imagined by Roberto Rossellini, but Ida doesn’t serve merely as a nostalgia trip to the art-house cinemas of the 1950s. In the best possible way, the film is a continuation and crucial advancement of the same emotional tremors that characterized Pawlikowski’s undervalued The Woman in the Fifth. The anger, regret, and loss the director expressed in that film remains here in the figure of Wanda, who’s driven by fury and backed by her position in government, but this film is more in line with Ida’s outlook, guided by faith and a vague familial loyalty.
It’s enough to say that the details of their kin’s demise come as decidedly gruesome news, and this seething drama roots itself in the easy evil of justified compliance. Pawlikowski often shoots his actors very low in the frame, less to express some view of an almighty than to express the isolationism and miniscule scale of the characters in a harsh, overbearing landscape, still bruised and raw from wartime. History and memory eat away at Wanda until she can’t take it anymore, whereas the revelations of her grim origins sends Ida into a bold fit of lust and romance with a traveling saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik). In Ida’s burgeoning curiosity toward life outside her religious confines, the writer-director openly argues the pros and cons of the comforts of memory, which has equally protected and devastated these two women.
The film’s aesthetic recalls early Melville, Bergman, and, yes, Rossellini, and there are more than a few moments when Pawlikowski’s elegant vision feels as if it’s repressing the harsher pains of certain experiences, such as Wanda’s desperate alcoholism and her and Ida’s interactions with the townsfolk that hid their family. Ida is unmistakably alert to its artifice, however, as the monochromatic images and allusions to pre-New Wave influences, to say nothing of the 1.37:1 ratio, give an overt air of classicism. The film’s look both recognizes and distances itself from the horrors uncovered and declassified in the years following WWII, just as Ida ultimately survives by playing along with a fiction, while Wanda is dragged down by the absence of a soothing lie. Pawlikowski shows great empathy toward the idea of illusions as a way of attaining emotional stability in even the most brutal terrain, even in the face of personal hypocrisy, and is very direct about how obsession with the past and truth can hollow you out and toss you away.