The orphaned Ida is on the verge of taking vows when she receives news she has a living relative—her aunt, Wanda, a judge in the Communist government. Her aunt also has news for Ida: she’s Jewish. The two women, still strangers, set out to discover their family remains. The road trip that follows is contemplative, but incidental; in every respect, Ida is a film that trusts its audience, and its audience knows the past that Ida and Wanda will uncover is a bleak one. The real suspense is what other distances the journey might close—the gulf between hard-living Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and withdrawn Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska, effortlessly holding the screen in a performance that’s essentially silent), and the even more unspoken relationship between Ida and her religion when confronted with the world, a conflict so personal, the film can only consider it in sidelong glimpses.
However, just because a story is quiet doesn’t make it less affecting. Ida’s themes emerge in an understated piecemeal that at first seems surreal, and the story only slowly starts to ache, until every frame takes on the feeling of last chances. And here we reach Ida’s greatest strength: its deliberate pacing provides an absorbing and precise visual insight. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal (along with Ryszard Lenczewski) creates a black-and-white palette of unusual richness. It would be both easy and thematically fitting to approach this monochrome in highlights and stark shadows, but the frame quietly offers up shades of textured, secretive gray: snow, a cardigan, a wooden doorway, a curving stair all become stories that are easily examined without a word spoken.
An elegant, deeply felt film, Ida is a study of place and of the self in uncertain times, beautifully engaged in a study of both outside and inner worlds.