How do we know who we are? Individually and collectively, our knowledge of self is something we inherit. Names, nationalities, physical appearances – all are things that are bequeathed to us by those who came before. But what happens when that which we’ve received turns out to be false, when we discover our identities are built on deceptions? In this stark and piercing film set in 1960s Poland, identity is something to be grappled with by individuals and nations.
Anna (Trzebuchowska, an arresting newcomer) is an orphan and novitiate nun on the verge of taking her vows. Before she does so, however, her mother superior insists that Anna visit with her only living relative, an aunt whose existence was unknown to Anna up until that moment. A naive and cloistered young woman, Anna has grown up in the nunnery, innocent to the world beyond its gates. Her aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is quite the opposite: She’s a heavy drinker and smoker, sexually wanton, and possessed of a cynicism that she wears like armor. She’s a judge by profession, nicknamed Red Wanda for her fealty to the postwar Stalinist regime, during which time she sentenced many perceived subversives to oblivion – actions that she appears to now regret, although she is anything but contrite. Wanda then shares some potentially life-altering news with her niece: Anna’s real name is Ida and she is a Jew born to parents who were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Wanda’s revelation leads the two on a journey into the countryside to uncover secrets that were buried long ago. They travel in Wanda’s rickety jalopy to their ancestral home where they ultimately – and quite literally – start digging up the past. Still, there are stops along the way for food and booze and idle flirtations. Anna says little that conveys a clear sense of what she is thinking and feeling. Thus the disorientation is reflected back on the viewer, who along with Anna must make sense of her newfound past and future potential.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, director Pawilkowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) tells this story in a remarkably concise 80 minutes. There’s a definite austerity to the storytelling, which is enhanced by the crisp black-and-white cinematography by Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Desaturated of colors, Ida recalls the drab images of Communist-era Poland we saw in old newsreel footage in the West. The Polish-born Pawilkowski has lived most of his life in Western Europe and has made his previous films in England. So Ida, which he filmed in Poland, is a return to the past for the filmmaker as well. The result is an emotionally moving work which, without sentimentality, urges us to challenge our assumptions and reckon with hard truths.