Ida, the newest film from director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), is a rare accomplishment. In the tradition of European masterworks like Andrei Rublev or Grand Illusion, it manages to be about a nation and the cataclysms that shaped it, simply by telling a human story. Ida isn’t a throwback to those classics, but it accomplishes the same feat they do: it uses the medium’s most basic elements to create a pure cinematic experience. Free of genre, spectacle or pretension, it’s cinema at its best.
Set in 1960s Poland, Ida follows Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an 18-year-old about to take her vows to become a nun in the convent that raised her as an orphan. Her Mother Superior insists that she first meet her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Through Wanda, Anna learns of her Jewish parentage and investigates her family’s mysterious death against the backdrop of a Poland still deeply scarred by war and genocide.
It’s pitch perfect, aesthetically. The high contrast black-and-white cinematography is simultaneously stark and poetic. Trzebuchowska (who gives a hypnotic near-silent performance) has eyes so dark that her pupil and iris meld into one black pool. The art direction is authentically ragged.
This marks Pawlikowski’s return to his native Poland, after a long stint in the U.K. It’s easy to make the mistake of seeing a film from a foreign country as being “about” that country. This assumption is usually wrongheaded and condescending. But I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that Ida is “about” post-war Poland. Anna learns her devout faith is a product of her people’s genocide. Wanda’s persecution by one brutal dictatorship leads to her participation in another. They live in a diasporic nation, populated with diasporic people. Ida’s greatest strength comes from knowing that it can achieve its grand scope through intimacy, empathy and humanity.