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Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski delivers a spiritual masterpiece

In Ida, an innocent girl raised in a convent comes face-to-face with evil.

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In Ida a virginal teenager who's been raised in a Polish convent since her infancy is summoned by the mother superior and informed that, before she takes her vows of ordination to become a nun, she must travel to the city and meet her only living relative, an aunt who refused to take her in after her parents died. Poland is still under communist rule in the mid-60s, and the aunt is a powerful magistrate known for sentencing enemies of the state to death ("Red Wanda," people call her). From this embittered and alcoholic woman, the young novitiate learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, that her father was Jewish, and that her mother perished alongside him during the Nazi occupation; together Ida and Wanda set off for the little village of Piaski to learn where the parents are buried and how they met their fate. Wanda cautions Ida before they leave: "What if you go there and discover there is no God?"

You can't ask a filmmaker to aim any higher than the question of God's existence, and as the women arrive at the truth about the murdered couple and try to reckon with it, Ida becomes a classic struggle between reason and faith, the carnal and the spiritual, hatred and forgiveness. Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) gives this the sort of visual dignity it demands; Ida is an extraordinarily spare and beautiful film, shot in crisp black-and-white and an old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1:1.37, that recalls the metaphysical dramas of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. There's almost no score, which leaves many scenes in near silence and heightens the dramatic effect whenever the cloistered Ida is exposed to diegetic music (a dance band at a local hotel, a phonograph record of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony). The film's modesty extends even to its length, a mere 80 minutes, yet Pawlikowski and coscreenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz touch on emotions so profound their story has the force of a parable.

Pawlikowski took a considerable risk in casting a nonactress as the young novitiate, but dimpled, wide-eyed Agata Trzebuchowska, discovered in a Warsaw cafe, gives an impressively still and silent performance as Ida. The movie opens with a shot of her staring fixedly as she paints the face on a statue of Jesus, and from that moment Ida becomes an emblem of religious devotion; when she and her aunt are driving to the village, they pass a crucifix at a crossroads, the car stops, and Ida gets out of the car to kneel before the cross and pray. Yet her faith has never been tested by the outside world, and Wanda, who still grieves for the girl's mother, sees the different person she might have become. She encourages her niece to meet a man and experience the pleasure of physical love: "Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are those vows of yours?" Later, when Wanda returns to their hotel room drunk and tries to goad the girl by reading from the Bible, Ida wrests the book from her hands and sticks it under her pillow.

By contrast, Agata Kulesza has a long resumé in Polish film and TV, and she brings to the role of Wanda a caustic edge appropriate to a woman haunted not only by her sister's violent end but by her own years of sending political dissidents to the gallows. Wanda knows the allure of sex, restlessly hitting the bars and bringing home middle-aged men for one-night stands, and also the intoxication of worldly power. When she and Ida arrive at the little farmhouse where the parents lived and get no answers from the man who owns it now, Wanda declares, "I know when someone is lying. I can destroy you. You have children." These ugly threats repel Ida, who leaves the room, yet the truth is even uglier: as Wanda has suspected all along, the parents were killed not by the Nazis but by their own Christian neighbors, who took advantage of the opportunity to seize their property for themselves.

The buried history of Polish complicity in the Holocaust has become a hot-button issue in a nation accustomed to its victimhood: a storm of controversy greeted the 2001 publication of Neighbors, Jan T. Gross's nonfiction book about the Jedwabne pogrom—in which some 300 Jews were butchered by their fellow townspeople—and the 2012 release of Aftermath, Wladyslaw Pasikowki's dramatic feature based on the same incident. As a longtime expatriate, Pawel Pawlikowski may not understand just how sensitive his fellow Poles are on the subject, yet Ida transpires on a level far removed from the political forces of nationalism or fascism or communism. It tells a story of simple good and evil, and how an innocent young woman comes to know herself better as she grows more intimately acquainted with each.

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