When the film Ida opens, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphan raised in a convent, is nearing the time of the taking of her vows to join the religious order that runs the convent. The mother superior (Halina Skoczynska) orders her to pay a visit, beforehand, to her only living relative, an aunt whom the convent asked to take Anna and raise her but who refused to do so.
Anna reluctantly visits her mother’s sister. Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and learns from her that her birth name is Ida and that her parents were Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. Wanda is a judge, a hard drinker, and not precisely an avatar of sexual virtue. Ida decides to visit her parent’s graves and Wanda, who does not know where they are buried, accompanies her to the town where they lived. The two women’s meeting and time together turns out to be of immense significance to both of them.
What is notable about the film, though, is not so much the tale that is told as how it is told. The film’s black and white, spare images almost weave a spell, presenting the story in an implicit, powerful way: powerful because of its implicitness. Some emotions are simply too deep for words, or at least for many words, and the style of Pawel Pawlikowski (who co-wrote the film and directed it) encourages the audience to contemplate what is shown and not simply view it. It is therefore a great pity that, towards the end of the film, Pawlikowski does not remain faithful to this style. At one point, Ida sobs and at another she speaks to a statue of Jesus revealing her thoughts. Both are needless and dilute the powerful implicitness that has been built up.
But the major break, I think, is the ending. Ida comes to a crucial decision which, while not predictable, is credible. Given her life experience, her sheltered background, and the place in which she finds herself (Poland in the 1960s), it is understandable that the range of options present in her mind is rather narrow. In the final scene, for the first time, there is background music. I suppose it is meant to make the scene more powerful, but it seems to me needless underlining; even more, an actual weakening of the film.
With its final shot and its background music, the film ends—jarringly, to me– on a note of explicit closure rather than contemplation. Given Pawlikowski’s mastery of images, this need not have been. (Wanda comes to a crucial decision of her own and this is handled in the dominant style of the film.) . Nevertheless, Ida remains a remarkable film.