“Ida,” an intimate drama set in 1960s, Soviet Union-era Poland, is starkly, beautifully written, filmed and acted. Shot in black-and-white with stationary cameras that let characters walk in and out of the frame, “Ida” looks like cinema from another time.
The movie’s haunting tone, perfectly tuned performances and its filmmakers’ courage in telling a tragic story without blinking more than qualify it for masterpiece designation. “Ida” is showing at Chalmette Movies.
Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, a U.K.-based native of Poland who made documentaries before turning to features, returned to his post-Soviet homeland to make “Ida.” Pawlikowski tells the story through illuminating images and sparse dialogue that need few English subtitles.
The movie’s gray palette, banal locations and dispirited characters suggest that life in Communist Poland was grim. “Ida’s” style and atmosphere also parallels the realist cinema of post-World War II Europe.
“Ida” largely is the story of two women in 1962. The Ida of the film’s title first appears on screen as Anna, a young woman training to be a Catholic nun. Raised by nuns in an orphanage, Anna knows nothing of the outside world or her biological family.
Prior to taking her vows, the convent’s mother superior tells Anna that she must visit her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda. Anna expresses her reluctance to leave the convent but, obedient novitiate that she is, she does as she’s told.
Innocent Anna meets the worldly Wanda, a former judge in Communist Poland. In Wanda’s apartment kitchen, the two of them have a starkly direct conversation.
“Why didn’t you come take me from the orphanage?” Anna asks.
“I didn’t want to,” Wanda answers. “You wouldn’t have been happy with me.” And then Wanda drops a post-war bombshell. “Your real name is Ida Lebenstein.”
What follows is part road trip, part mystery and much character study. The hardened Communist Party veteran and sheltered nun-to-be, dressed in her novitiate habit, take a dark journey of discovery into the Polish countryside.
Director Pawlikowski, co-writer of the film with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and directors of photography Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski document Anna and Wanda’s time together with detached yet carefully framed lenses. They are dispassionate observers who neither judge nor intervene.
Remarkably, Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Anna, aka Ida, is a first-time actress. One of Pawlikowski’s director friends in Poland discovered her in a Warsaw café. Trzebuchowska occupies the role completely, with quiet grace and enormous sense of self. She does most of her acting without words. It’s an award-worthy portrait of an unforgettable character.
Agata Kulesza, a Warsaw-based veteran of Polish film, television and theater, co-stars as Wanda. Kulesza is another casting coup. As different as Wanda — a vaguely bitter woman who drinks, smokes and is sexually promiscuous — and Anna are, they’re still family and they can find common ground.
Lasting just 80 minutes, “Ida” is for the most part mesmerizing. The first hour of those 80 minutes, approximately, really is a masterpiece.
Three and a half stars out of four
STARRING: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza
DIRECTOR: Pawel Pawlikowski
NOW SHOWING: Chalmette Movies
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 20 mins.
MPAA RATING: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking.