Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida

Ida, a starkly-presented, brief, almost minimalist piece, is one of the most subtle, compelling and smartly-handled films I’ve seen this year, at times feeling more like a fable than the gritty realist drama it is.

Set in 1962 and telling the story of a young Polish novice nun obliged to leave the convent to meet her estranged aunt, Ida turns out to be the perfect palette cleanser after an exhausting ‘Summer’ season that seems to have been running since early February, churning out identikit light-and-noise spectacles. Ida couldn’t be more different: subtitled and presented in a grainy black and white square frame that frequently isolates characters at the edge, passively overwhelming and constraining them; much of the story is told only through the positioning of actors and the stark cinematography.

First-time actor Agata Trzebuchowska puts in a subtle performance as the simultaneous ugliness and attractiveness of the real world erodes her certainty. At first glance she’s a blank slate, but that’s the point: Ida has never been out of the convent, has no background or strongly-defined character. Even within the convent, she keeps a quiet, almost sullen distance from the other novices; without a past to embrace or reject, she ultimately doesn’t belong anywhere.

Despite Ida taking the title, the character is only really a catalyst to a story about a stark and exhausted Poland, crushed by a generation of war, Nazism, Stalinism, state terror and antisemitism. Everyone apart from Ida is living precariously on secrets, and the film effortlessly shows what happens when you scratch the surface of such a society even a little; nobody wants to give up what they have now, even if it means hiding the past. Facts are repressed, doggedly uncovered, and dealt with stoically. The story gradually unfurls, teased out as much by what isn’t said as what is.

This story of a guilty Poland is personified by Agata Kulesza’s Wanda, Ida’s only living relative who previously refused to take the orphaned Ida in. A former infamous state prosecutor who presided over the show-trials and purges of the ’50s but with her powerful days behind her, she’s buried her past under alcoholism, cynicism and emotionless one-night stands. Her increasingly-vigorous pursuit of the truth isn’t to give Ida any sense of family or closure — Ida in fact being content enough to return to the convent after only a single cup of tea and an awkward hello — but to atone in some way for her own unmentioned sins.

Despite its subject and oppressive framing, Ida isn’t overwhelmingly miserable, just grittily plausible, and is studded with the occasional moment of optimism, particularly in the figure of a young saxophonist with a fondness for American jazz who hints at the vibrancy and turmoil of the ’60s era still to come. There’s a darkness throughout the film, but it’s less bleak than you might expect.