Trzebuchowska (right) is placid and mysterious in her habit.
Ida is about dislocation and shifting identity, and this explains all the arty camera setups. That's my interpretation, anyway. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal work in gorgeous black-and-white, and in the narrow Academy aspect ratio. They frame their shots jaggedly, so that sometimes actors' faces are cut off, or the action takes place in the corner of the screen, or we're mostly looking at a ceiling. As moviegoers, we're not necessarily used to cinematography that calls such dramatic attention to itself. It works in Ida, a marvelous, shattering drama.
Ida is set in Poland in the 1960s. The opening scenes take place in a convent, where a young novice named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows. The mother superior says that first Anna, an orphan, should meet her only known relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna first encounters a disheveled, skeptical Wanda in the older woman's apartment, where an unidentified man quickly gets dressed and leaves. "Did they tell you what I do?" Wanda asks Anna. We may already have developed ideas about what she does.
Soon we learn that Wanda is a respected court official who, in a scene near the beginning of the film, looks bored at the trial of a petty vandal. We later discover that at an earlier moment in the history of Communist Poland, she sent certain Enemies of the People to their death. If that phrase sounds ominous, it should. In the production notes, director and co-screenwriter Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) says the character is based on an acquaintance, a ruthless Stalinist who was extradited for crimes against humanity.
Wanda reveals that Anna is Jewish, and that her real name is Ida, and that like millions of Polish Jews, her parents were killed during World War II. The two set off on a road trip to locate their grave. Along the way, they encounter a young musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) who flirts with Anna, and she begins to question her commitment to religious life.
Trzebuchowska, in her subdued acting debut, is placid and mysterious in her habit. And Kulesza is by turns funny and ruthless as Wanda. She is manifestly unhappy. She drinks too much, and that gets her into trouble. She teases Anna and is irreverent about her religion. Her past is appalling. She has been a victim, and she has also, it seems, been a perpetrator. Near the end of the film, she does something very dramatic, but it happens so quickly you might be left rubbing your eyes. It's a quietly horrifying moment, and it's not the only one.