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We encounter Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) in the very first shot of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and come under the influence of her arresting gaze. In this first glimpse of her, she’s studying a new statue of Jesus and dabbing paint on the face. It’s 1962, and Anna is a novitiate in a rural Polish convent, having spent virtually her entire seventeen or eighteen year-long existence in this largely silent, isolated environment as an orphan of undisclosed origins. Soon, her subdued aspect with its potentially intense gaze will have strange new things on which to focus.

Anna has one known relative, an aunt who has ignored convent inquiries for years, but has now very belatedly written back. The mother superior tells Anna she must visit this woman before she takes her vows and the girl reluctantly obeys. (The circumstances of this history aren’t really clarified; Pawlikowski is parsimonious with information.)

In the city, she stares through a bus window at the urban panorama with a sort of reserved fascination. Anna’s reaction is barely more animated when she learns from her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) that she’s really Ida, the daughter of Jewish parents who mysteriously perished during the Second World War. Wanda, a hard-bitten, alcoholic Communist municipal magistrate, greets her niece rather matter-of-factly (a man can be seen through the bedroom doorway preparing to depart), and doesn’t supply much more information. But when Anna/Ida indicates she’s leaving to visit the village of her birth, Wanda suddenly decides to drive her there. Thus, Ida becomes an unusual road movie. As these two uneasily bond, the movie also becomes an odyssey into their pasts, and into some of the viler episodes in Poland’s obscured anti-Semitic history. Eventually, the mystery of what befell Wanda and Ida’s family is mostly solved, but Pawlikowski doesn’t provide much justice, only a crudely limited closure. Along the way, the women meet a young Coltrane-playing saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik) who will later unwittingly contribute to a crucial decision by Ida.

Pawlikowski renders this story with a spare style, sometimes elegantly, as he photographs it in a finely modulated black and white. Several times, he frames his characters in outdoor shots with expanses of space above them, as if to evoke a vast, indifferent world to test Ida’s faith.

Trzebuchowska’s very photogenic face and wary look suggest a combination of Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman. Acting honors belong to Kulesza; the desperation behind Wanda’s bravado is revealed as much by her performance as by the script.

The movies’ resolution is a little too schematic and arbitrary, but what precedes it is disturbingly involving and quietly provocative.

Watch the trailer for Ida

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