Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (June 25, 2014)

Movies are often a noisy affair. Their soundscapes are littered with dialogue and sound effects, screeching tires and background chatter, with soundtracks designed to fill every space in between. So the quiet of Ida, from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, can feel deafening by contrast. But the lack of noise doesn't detract from the movie—rather, it's a sign of the exquisite attention to detail that makes Ida a beautifully crafted film.

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), an 18-year-old Polish orphan raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to become a nun when her Mother Superior tells her to visit her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). The chain-smoking, world-weary Communist Party insider shocks her niece by informing her that her real name is Ida, and that her parents were Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation. Together they travel into the Polish countryside to dig up—literally and figuratively—the truth of what happened to Ida's parents, exploring the legacy of the Holocaust and the realities of living under communism along the way.

Trzebuchowska delivers a remarkably nuanced performance in her cinematic debut. Although Ida says little and tries to keep her feelings to herself, Trzebuchowska lets the audience into Ida's inner world—the conflict in her eyes when informed she's Jewish, for instance, or the flicker of pride across her face when she is asked to bless a child. But while Trzebuchowska plays the titular character, it's Kulesza who carries the emotional depth of the movie. Wanda puts up an impenetrable front at first, but Kulesza shows that the aunt's commanding nature, her constant pursuit of men, and her alcoholism have all merely been coping mechanisms to bury the pain and guilt she feels over the death of her family. Ida's presence in Wanda's life forces her to confront her loss and the weight of the Holocaust in her personal history, but it also eventually proves to be Wanda's undoing.

The realities of communist rule, the legacy of the Holocaust, uncovering the truth of a family murder, questions of identity and religion: All these heavy themes could overburden a film that's only 80 minutes long. But everything in Ida feels deliberate, so that there is nothing extraneous to weigh it down. Instead of using a sweeping soundtrack to exaggerate the emotional weight of the film, Ida keeps it simple, allowing the car radio, the echoing clatter of spoons as the nuns eat, or the flap of rippling sheets on a clothesline to speak volumes instead. The only time a soundtrack appears at all, in fact, is in the last scene of the film and the closing credits. The dialogue is similarly sparse—Ida hardly speaks to Wanda, the sinful stranger she must now call family, so a question as simple as "Who are you?" feels momentous.

Every scene is thoughtfully composed, from the intimate opening image of Ida cleaning a statue of Jesus to a distraught Kulesza slumping out of the frame to express her grief. Even a shot of an old alcoholic patron in a countryside bar looks like a work of art. And the choice to shoot the film in black and white only enhances Ida's haunting aesthetic, reminding us that the echoes of history are never too distant, no matter how much we try to bury the past. (Anna Walsh)