Ida is one of the year’s most successful foreign films. It’s also one of the year’s best films, domestic or otherwise. It’s the latest work by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love), who co-wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
It tells the story Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman in 1960s Poland who has grown up in a convent. She is close to committing the rest of her life to being a nun when her Mother Superior requests that Anna finally meet her only known living relative, an aunt that has been written to for years. Anna agrees to do so. The aunt is named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a judge of some consequence who is in many ways the opposite of Anna. Where Anna is quiet and solemn, Wanda drives drunk and is prone to making little digs at her niece’s devoutness. Wanda isn’t solely mean spirited though; she has merely had to confront a number of life’s horrors that have been shielded from Anna.
Over the course of a brisk 80 minutes, Anna learns a great deal about her past, including that her real name is Ida and that she comes from a Jewish family that met with significant struggles during World War II.
If this all sounds rather dire, fret not. Pawlikowski’s film isn’t particularly heavy in its touch. Yes, it confronts a number of harsh subjects. Ida doesn’t always do so with somberness. The backbone of this is the bond between Anna/Ida and Wanda, a strange twosome with a common goal of finding a terrible truth. Wanda tries to show her niece the temptations and glories of a non-religious world, partly to get a kick out of watching her squirm and partly out of concern. Anna/Ida knows so little of her true past, let alone what society has to offer, that Wanda feels an obligation to present all of it.
Both actresses are great. Trzebuchowska is giving her first professional performance. The part could easily be wide-eyes and naivety. Trzebuchowska imbues it with something less ethereal. There is sweetness and curiosity; intelligence too. The screenplay doesn’t portray her as an innocent fool. She’s a woman who holds back verbal judgment, her typically blank face only breaking for moments of revelation. Kulesza is equally impressive. We don’t know too many specifics of her day-to-day life; her attitude is enough to imply what’s necessary. She borders on brash at most times and one gets a sense its out of necessity, as if the only way Wanda could get to her place in life was to be ruthless with her words and actions. The way these edges are dulled with the presence of Anna/Ida is one of the movie’s true treasures.
The film has many of them and is a genuine must-see.