Born in Poland and educated in England, writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski ("My Summer of Love," "Last Resort," "The Woman in the Fifth") tells a touching, personal story of spiritual identity, set against the Holocaust, the Stalinist period and its continuing after-effects.
In Poland in 1962, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a serene, 18-year-old novitiate preparing to take her vows at the rural convent where she has lived since she was orphaned as a child.
But before she makes her sanctified commitment to the church, her mother superior insists that she travel to Lodz to visit her only known relative, Wanda Grusz (Agata Kulesza), her late mother's sister, an aunt whom she's never met.
As a former state prosecutor for the communist government, known as "Red Wanda," she reveals a family secret. Anna was born Ida Lebenstein -- and she's Jewish. Showing family photographs to Anna, Wanda tells her that she suspects Anna's parents may have been betrayed by Polish peasants as they were hiding from the Nazis during World War II. That revelation leads the two women to take a road trip into the bleak countryside in Wanda's old Wartburg car to try to find the isolated farmhouse where Ida was born and to search the nearby forest for where her parents might be buried.
As they make this sorrowful journey of self-discovery, the two women, who could not be more different, form a bond. Devoutly Catholic Anna is an idealistic innocent, while earthy, promiscuous, alcoholic Wanda cynically enjoys attacking her naivete, bluntly asking: "What if you discover there is no God?"
Collaborating with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Pawlikowski has created a serious, understated yet surprisingly timely tale since, reportedly, many young adults in Poland are discovering they may have Jewish ancestors.
Austerely shot by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenkezekicz in monochromatic black-and-white with somber shades of gray,
it's truly an ascetic art-house film.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Ida" is an exquisite 8, intellectually affecting in its brief, precise 80 minutes.