This Is Poland: Ida

04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Revolving around an identity crisis that also occasions a crisis of faith, this black-and-white drama is, at 80 minutes, a fleet yet entirely lucid meditation on the weight of history, both familial and national. Ida is also a period piece, shot in the compact Academy ratio: it takes place in 1960s Poland, where, behind the Party line of progress, the trauma of the German occupation still looms large. The film opens in a remote part of the country, with glimpses of a cloistered convent day-to-day, but in short order moves into the wider world. The resident mother superior urges Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, wonderfully subtle in her first role), orphaned as an infant, to make the trip to meet her one known relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a former state prosecutor who lives in her own form of isolation, drinking in her city apartment with the phonograph on.

Upon meeting, Wanda rather flippantly apprises her niece of her family’s turbulent recent past: Sister Anna is in fact Ida Lebenstein, her Jewish kin killed under mysterious circumstances during the course of the war. The young woman, soon to take her vows, does no handwringing; rather, she processes the unsettling news quietly. Pawlikowski and cowriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz instead place their focus on the deepening bond between the devout Ida and the disillusioned Wanda, following them as they try to find out just what happened to Ida’s mother and brother so that they might find their bodies and properly lay them to rest.

This film is the UK-based director’s fourth feature but his first set in his native country, and the sense of place is impeccable: a band swoons through translated covers of Western pop hits in the lobby of a hotel in the sticks; in many of the movie’s striking compositions, the characters are weighted toward the very bottom of the frame, so that we get well acquainted with the textures of the bare walls of the rooms that they occupy. The prevailing sense is of a world sadly out of balance—here, family members meet as strangers, while the past continues to upend the present.

Opens May 2 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza